Ultimately, you place responsibility for a team’s success or failure on its players. But a manager’s job is to put his players in the best position to succeed, and after the Royals lost a second straight game to the Tigers in their weekend showdown series, you may be asking -- again -- if K.C. skipper Ned Yost can deliver on that.
That’s because the Royals are up against a basic problem: They may have to scrabble and scrape after runs with little-ball tactics, but even after a full season with this roster, they don’t seem all that familiar with using them to their advantage. You can understand why the Royals use one-run strategies: They’re last in the league in Isolated Power (.114 through Friday), and last in the league in walk rate (6.3 percent). That said, Saturday’s loss was a classic case of a manager’s overcompensation making a bad offense worse.
Let’s start with today’s edition of “Ned Yost, bunting fool.” It’s easy to pick on Yost because, as Earl Weaver quipped, if you play for one run, that’s all you’re likely to get. Twice, the Royals settled for less, short-circuiting any chance they had at a big inning against Max Scherzer, twice making sure that Scherzer vs. Shields was going to be the pitchers’ duel you’d expect.
Take Yost’s first-inning, no-out bunt with Norichika Aoki after Alcides Escobar’s leadoff double. Scherzer struck out the next two batters. Was the bunt a bad idea? Of course it was, without even getting into Aoki’s hot bat of late (13-for-20 in his previous week, .436 in September). But it was exacerbated by what seems like a lack of situational awareness in lineup design. The guy due up after Escobar on the lineup card Yost signed, Josh Willingham, is an adequate big-inning player because of his walk rate and his Isolated Power, but he strikes out more than 27 percent of the time and gets a hit in less than 18 percent of all plate appearances. He gets balls in play half the time he’s up, well below league average. He is not exactly the guy you bank on delivering a fly ball on demand. He didn’t.
Fast-forward to the third inning, this time with two speedsters -- Jarrod Dyson and Escobar -- aboard and nobody out, with Aoki up. Rather than double steal after designing his lineup to bundle up speed, he ordered Aoki to bunt again. Aoki bunted. Willingham fouled out to first base.
Alex Gordon couldn’t come up with a two-out RBI in either circumstance, but he plates just 15 percent of all baserunners, just slightly above league average. Not that Royals fans need another reason to see red, but referring to more of this kind of minutiae, Gordon has plated 54 percent of all runners on third with less than two outs. As if it didn’t already make more than enough sense to bat Gordon third just to make sure he’s more likely to get another at-bat. Bat Gordon third? Just do it already.
As is, the Royals scored their first run off Ian Kinsler missing a ball he should have come up with. And then there was the lost opportunity of the sixth inning, when the Royals blew another scoring chance because Salvador Perez didn’t retag third base after Omar Infante’s lineout to second base. It was a broken-play situation, because Kinsler threw past Suarez covering second, but Perez blew a baserunning basic.
James Shields doesn’t have the best track record of shutting down the Tigers’ bigger boppers: Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez had a combined .512 career slugging average against Shields. But the Royals’ ace delivered as well as you might hope against them this time around, limiting them to 3-for-12 with Hunter homering. If that had been the extent of the damage, that would have been great news for the Royals.
Unfortunately, where Shields didn’t do himself any favors was getting beaten by the back end of the Tigers’ roster in the seventh by surrendering a two-out walk to Eugenio Suarez, putting two men into scoring with a wild pitch, and getting beat by consecutive singles from Tyler Collins and Rajai Davis. Maybe Yost took the “Big Game” thing a few batters too far, but I’d cut him some slack here. Shields’ pitch count wasn’t huge (he finished with 103), and he was merely trying to finish his third time through the Tigers’ order. Three runs in six-plus innings is usually good enough for a team looking to win; thanks to the Royals’ self-inflicted handicaps on offense, it wasn’t.
Even late, the game was in reach, because it isn’t like the Joba Chamberlain-Joe Nathan eight-nine duo is doing the Tigers many favors lately. Chamberlain made it a one-run game in his frame, and then Nathan put two runners into scoring position in the ninth. You may wonder what manager Brad Ausmus was doing, leaving Joakim Soria warming up in case he’d have to clean up Nathan’s mess instead of preventing one from happening in the first place. But here again, the Royals couldn’t cash in, pinch-hitting Raul Ibanez (.546 OPS) to end the game as a pinch-hitter for Willingham (.750). With Gordon on deck.
It would be easy to say it’s time to hand the AL Central title to the Tigers after they beat the Royals again, but a win Sunday would put these two teams back within two games with a week to play. Anything could still happen. But if the Royals are supposed to achieve big things, they certainly can’t afford to keep blowing the little things.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.