Sending Cain: Jirschele’s decision as wise as it was aggressive
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Inside the Royals’ coaches room, Mike Jirschele’s colleagues were waiting to congratulate him.
“You dreamed of that, didn’t you Jirsch?” pitching coach Dave Eiland said, smiling broadly.
Bench coach Don Wakamatsu was just as overjoyed.
“He waited the whole series for it to happen. It happened, and he was on it,” Wakamatsu said.
“It” was the defining play of the Royals’ clinching victory in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night, the play that helped send them to their second straight World Series.
Eighth inning, tie score, Lorenzo Cain on first after a leadoff walk. Eric Hosmer hits a ball into the right-field corner. Jirschele, the Royals’ third-base coach, sees Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista throw the ball to second base rather than hit the closest cutoff man, and frantically waves Cain home with the go-ahead run.
Fox’s Tom Verducci said it on the broadcast. All of the coaches said it afterward. Jirschele was right to hold Alex Gordon at third with two outs in the ninth inning in Game 7 of last year’s World Series. And he was right to send Cain.
So much happened in this October classic, this vintage 4-3 Royals victory. Mike Moustakas hit a homer that might have been a homer only due to interference by a 19-year-old fan. David Price pitched well for the Jays but again failed to earn his first postseason win as a starter. Bautista hit two homers, including a game-tying, two-run shot in the eighth. Wade Davis came back from a 45-minute rain delay, then escaped a first-and-third, none-out jam in the ninth to secure the Royals’ second straight AL title.
Still, Cain’s mad dash home was a quintessential Royals moment, combining aggressive baserunning, sheer gumption and coaching savvy.
“I was shocked. I was really shocked that he sent me,” Cain said.
But Cain didn’t know what Jirschele knew, didn’t know about a specific tendency of Bautista’s that Jirschele had noticed earlier in the series.
Third-base coaches look for clues in outfielders’ actions, indicators that can influence their split-second decisions. Jirschele had seen Bautista make the long throw to second under similar circumstances in Game 3. Alas, the slow-footed Kendrys Morales was running and Jirschele couldn’t send him.
Cain, of course, is not slow-footed. But he scored only because he adhered to a philosophy that Jirschele drills into all of the Royals’ base-runners from day one of spring training.
“He tells us before each and every game: ‘Come to third base running hard. You never know what’s going to happen,’” Cain said. “He’s always yelling at us about it: ‘Come in hot. Don’t slow down. I’ll let you know.’”
Jirschele watched Bautista cut off Hosmer’s hit near the foul line, knowing the right fielder possessed a strong arm. Second baseman Ryan Goins had set up as a cutoff man in the “4” hole, near his normal position.
If Bautista had thrown to Goins, Jirschele said he would have held Cain at third, fearing a throw home. But Bautista threw near the bag, where shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was waiting. Tulowitzki turned and fired to the plate, but the play at home was not close.
“I was waiting for him to release the ball,” Jirschele said of Bautista. “As soon as he released it, with Cain running full speed, I was not stopping him.”
Bautista afterward described his choice as “kind of a feel thing.” Hosmer had taken a big turn; Bautista pointed out that if he had thrown to Goins, the Royals likely would have ended up with runners on second and third with none out.
Not good. But not inescapable.
While Bautista succeeded in preventing Hosmer from turning a single into a double, he should have been more worried about Cain scoring the go-ahead run.
“Obviously in this instance I was wrong because of their aggressiveness and guts,” Bautista said. “With none out, for the third-base coach to make that call, that’s pretty gutsy.”
Yet, the way Jirschele sees it, that’s his job.
He did not receive heavy criticism for holding Gordon in Game 7 of last year’s Series; most recognized that Gordon would have been out. Still, Jirschele fielded numerous questions from reporters about his decision in spring training.
The 2014 season had been Jirschele’s first as a major-league coach after 36 years in the minors as a player, coach and manager. The game has humbled him far too often for him to even think about referring to Friday night’s turn of events as vindication.
“That’s what a third-base coach lives for, to make decisions like that,” Jirschele said, almost shrugging. “You like to be in the action. It’s not that you’re right all the time. But you like the opportunity to make those calls.”
Jirschele is right far more often than he is wrong; first-base coach Rusty Kuntz called him “probably the best I’ve ever seen at reading throws and seeing where balls are going to go.”
The coaches possess thankless jobs, operating as a team within a team, trying to coax the best out of players who are far wealthier than them and possess far bigger egos. Blame in their profession is far more common than praise, so when something like the Cain play happens, it is cause for celebration.
“You’re the best ever,” Eiland told Jirschele, grinning. “I told you were going to get that play. Did I not say it?”
Jirschele just smiled, looking relieved, looking happy.
He didn’t need to say a word. He had made the right call.