MINNEAPOLIS -- Michael Massey should have had his first walk of the 2023 season in the top of the eighth inning on Friday night, according to the electronic zone data.
With two on base, the Royals down by two runs and the top of the order on deck, Massey had at least two pitches called against him as he struck out against Twins lefty Caleb Thielbar. One was a slider on the outside part of the plate and the final pitch of the at-bat.
In real time -- and without the advantage of seeing the drawn-out zone in front of him on a computer screen – home-plate umpire Jerry Layne called a fastball below the zone strike three. Massey seemed stunned, but he walked off the field with his jaw set and minimal words to Layne.
Royals manager Matt Quatraro was a different story.
“These guys are battling their [butts] off,” Quatraro said on the field moments before being ejected for the first time in his big league coaching career in his club’s eventual 8-6 loss at Target Field.
“I thought clearly, that last pitch to Massey was a ball. Massey did a great job of controlling himself. Didn’t show up the umpire. It was a spot where I thought I had to stand up for the guys. I thought they’ve handled themselves really well, as has the whole team, whether they’re in the game or not. It was a spot where something needed to be said.”
Quatraro, whose even-keeled temperament has been steady even in the Royals’ 6-21 start to the season, objected to the call in a big situation. After starter Jordan Lyles allowed seven runs in four innings to put the Royals in a five-run deficit, the offense chipped away at Twins starter Pablo López and pulled within two in the seventh inning.
Massey has struggled at the plate this season with a 38.4% strikeout rate entering Friday, and he was 1-for-3 with two strikeouts before coming to the plate as the potential go-ahead run in the eighth.
“Huge spot,” Quatraro said. “Bobby [Witt Jr.] on deck. It would have loaded the bases. It was a big spot in the game.”
And Massey, who had a 53.3% swing percentage entering the game, did his part to lay off pitches.
“[Thielbar] made some pitches on the border, and Jerry thought they were strikes,” Massey said. “It is what it is. You can’t dwell on it. I’m not frustrated with myself in that at-bat as far as not swinging at those pitches.
“But that’s the game. There’s going to be some borderline calls. Not every single one will go your way.”
Massey and the rest of the dugout took notice when Quatraro got tossed.
“He cares,” said first baseman Nick Pratto, who went 3-for-5 with two RBIs, but struck out with the bases loaded to end the game. “It’s as simple as that. The clubhouse sees that. It’s not fun losing. Having somebody who’s by your side and will fight with you, that’s the leader you want to go after.”
“It was cool,” Massey added. “He’s an awesome guy to play for. Got some borderline calls in that at-bat that went the other way. It was super cool to see Q do that. Not surprised, though, we know he’s got our back.”
The eighth inning was another frustrating sequence in a season full of them for the Royals. But they did not help themselves, either. Massey was involved in a big defensive lapse in the fourth inning, when Michael A. Taylor’s perfectly placed squeeze bunt ended up in the scorebook as an RBI double.
As Lyles, Pratto, third baseman Hunter Dozier and catcher Salvador Perez converged on the ball Taylor bunted, Witt ran to third in case of a rundown. Massey was late covering first, resulting in no play, and Taylor noticed no one was there to cover second. So, he kept going.
Perez, who had the ball, had his back turned and never called time, and by the time Witt ran over to second and called for the ball, Taylor was sliding in safely. He went on to steal third and score on Jorge Polanco’s three-run homer.
“I did a bad job on that because I usually come in in case he pushes it hard,” Massey said. “Then try to get to first. I got caught for a second. I should have been at first base. And then once he got there, I should have realized that I had to get back to second.
“That was a blunder that hopefully I can learn from and make the next time.”