'I just missed the ball': Vlad's error encapsulates slow start

April 24th, 2024

KANSAS CITY -- dropped the ball. It’s that shocking and simple.

The moment that flipped a potential win into a 3-2 loss for the Blue Jays on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium looked like the simplest play of the game, a slick scoop by Isiah Kiner-Falefa and a dart across the diamond to Guerrero. You’d be forgiven if you looked away from your screen before the ball even got there.

Instead? Clunk.

The ball clipped off the thumb of Guerrero’s glove and tumbled past him into foul territory, extending the fifth inning and handing the Royals their first run. Three pitches later, Bobby Witt Jr. ripped a double down the left-field line to give the Royals the lead in an at-bat that never should have happened.

“What can I say? I just missed the ball. Period,” Guerrero said through a club interpreter.

At first glance, it looked like the ball might have ripped through the webbing of Guerrero’s glove -- a bizarre, recurring issue for him -- but that wasn’t the case. Guerrero just got caught in the middle of his lunge instead of being already fully stretched out, and in the process, didn’t have his glove in the right spot.

The Blue Jays had a win sitting in front of them, one which would have gone to Kevin Gausman. The Blue Jays’ ace still didn’t have his best stuff Tuesday, but shaped himself around the aggressive Royals’ lineup and deserved to get out of that fifth inning with a zero still hanging.

Gausman’s a pro, though. It’s frustrating, but he wasn’t looking to pile on.

“There’s nothing more I can do about it now,” Gausman said. “It stinks, but I still want Vladdy as my first baseman. I’m very confident in his ability over there, that’s why it stinks. That’s the game, unfortunately. We’re playing really good baseball and it’s unfortunate that it ended up being as important as it was.”

Across the diamond? This was a gift.

The Royals had felt an inch away from getting to Gausman up to that moment, attacking him early in counts and avoiding the swing-and-miss stuff that typically makes him so dominant. Guerrero’s play cracked the door open and that’s all they needed.

“That’s a freak play,” said Royals manager Matt Quatraro. “Kiner-Falefa made a really good play getting to that ball, and then Vladdy dropped it. You’re not going to count on that often."

The moment matters here. Had Guerrero made this error with a .950 OPS next to his name, it’s easier to say “these things happen.” They really do, sometimes. That’s not the moment Guerrero is in, though.

Guerrero is batting .217 with a .681 OPS. His last home run came on April 10 against the Mariners and he has just one extra-base hit since then. Yes, some of the underlying metrics paint a more encouraging picture, but that was the case for much of 2023, too, and it’s what ends up on the scoreboard that counts.

Blue Jays manager John Schneider will always believe in Guerrero. Why shouldn’t he, after coming up through the Minor Leagues managing one of the best young prospects this game has seen in years? He knows what Guerrero looks like when he’s at his best, a game-changing talent, which is why Schneider is always so optimistic that Guerrero is one swing away from waking the beast.

“The swings have gotten a bit big on pitches he can really hammer,” Schneider said. “It’s about him understanding: just take your at-bat. Yesterday was a perfect example. He gets a single and it’s like, ‘Maybe that’s your next at-bat, too. You don’t have to go deep.’ Vlad’s right there. He’s one of the most dangerous guys in the league. His swings have just been a bit big -- long, if you will. I love the quality of his at-bats overall.”

After the loss, Schneider backed up Guerrero, “a good first baseman” who just made a bad play at the wrong time. These are the little moments that matter down the road, though, when postseason races get tight and the margins narrow.

There’s not much Guerrero can say, either. He wasn’t trying to miss the ball, but that’s not the point. It happened, shocking as it was, and the small mishap quickly snowballed into the play that changed the game.

It usually works the other way. It’s typically Guerrero turning games back to the Blue Jays, stealing life from the other team and giving it to his own. That’s who the Blue Jays are waiting to see again.