Sam Mellinger

Playoff teams win this type of game

Updated: 2013-09-18T22:08:27Z

By Sam Mellinger

The Kansas City Star

The loudest September night at Kauffman Stadium in a generation ended in a whimper. Some cursing. A few boos.

The games here matter, even after the air has chilled and football season started, and this one hurts. The Royals are in a playoff hunt in the last two weeks of a season because of a hundred reasons. One of the biggest is that they are resilient.

They’ll have to be resilient once more, or mark this day as the beginning of the end of the hope.

They blew a critical game because the bullpen and the defense — their two greatest strengths this season — let them down. They lost 5-3 to the Indians in front of an announced crowd of 21,685. You may remember this one as the moment a playoff chase faded.

Because playoff teams don’t lose games like this.

And, man, it could’ve turned the other direction.

This could’ve been the one you might’ve remembered in a few weeks as a moment that hope became something more. The crowd included nearly 5,000 tickets sold on Tuesday. That’s a much-larger-than-usual walk-up crowd to see the Royals in an honest-to-goodness playoff chase — they began the day 2 1/2 out of the wild card with 12 games left — and the big-league debut of a 23-year-old with a flaming baseball tattooed on his arm.

Yordano Ventura was very good, too. Not dominant, but very good, with flashes of nasty: 5 2/3 innings, five hits, three strikeouts, two walks and one earned run. For once, a much-hyped Royals prospect was pitching in September and it wasn’t an audition for next season.

Ventura got at least three standing ovations, and the LETS-GO-ROYALS chants filled much of the early innings as the Royals took an early lead on a double by Eric Hosmer — exactly the kind of opposite-field line drive that put goosebumps on scouts’ arms.

Ventura walked off to a roaring stadium, waving his hat at the first big-league crowd he ever pitched in front of, and that’s about when loud turned to whimper.

When hope turned to frustration.

When the visions of Ventura’s 100-mph fastball and Hosmer’s emergence turned into curses at another wasted opportunity.

You want blame? You can start with manager Ned Yost’s decisions, Kelvin Herrera’s straight fastballs, a lineup still in need of some help and a defense that turned the calendar back to 2007 or so.

There is nothing egregious about what Yost did on Tuesday, but the looming stink of leaving Jeremy Guthrie in too long on Sunday and the result — which is all that matters, really — mean the September microscope is going to find warts.

Herrera gave up three hits and two runs while getting just one out in his last outing (a week ago against the Indians) and wasn’t much better on Tuesday, coughing up a two-run lead in the seventh.

That might’ve been manageable, but the Royals scored three or fewer runs for the fourth time in five games. Also, the Indians scored two runs on plays the Royals could’ve made.

In the sixth, Nick Swisher reached on a grounder to Emilio Bonifacio and scored on Carlos Santana’s soft single in front of David Lough.

In the eighth, Alex Gordon misread a slicing line drive by Asdrubal Cabrera. It would’ve been a terrific catch; it’s one that Gordon’s made before. As if to drive home the point about the defense, Bonifacio dropped the exchange from his glove to throwing hand on an easy ground ball later in the inning.

It didn’t cost a run, but by then the Indians had enough.

An inning later, much of the crowd had enough, too — heading to the exits after Michael Bourn’s homer in the ninth put the Indians up by two.

The Royals have been good enough since the All-Star break (after being bad enough for years) that every game is their most important in at least a decade. On Monday, that meant back-to-back triples and a fat man’s swirling belly became 24 hours of promise. After Tuesday, it means that they shrunk in the moment and missed an opportunity to move closer to what would be Kansas City’s best sports story in quite some time.

The math is turning darker, along with the mood.

The Royals are 3 1/2 back with 11 to play. Realistically, you figure they need to win at least eight to have a chance. Maybe more. That means the same team that gagged a lead at home in a critical game against a team it’s chasing will need to finish as the hottest team in baseball.

They’ve been resilient before.

But a fan base that wants to believe just took one more punch to the stomach. Today, another game. For better or worse.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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