Dutiful to the end, the Royals leaned on the dugout railing and watched a sluggish game drift to its conclusion. When the final out in a 3-1 loss to the Texas Rangers was recorded, the players departed for a flight home, leaving in their wake a trail of sunflower seeds, a bevy of crushed paper cups and a still secure lead in the American League Central.
To the casual observer, the club appeared worn out at the end of a 10-day trip on Sunday. The defense committed errors. Jason Vargas spent six innings grinding. The offense failed to bruise a spot starter. And the manager, Ned Yost, retained his sense of positivity.
“Everybody is full of life, full of energy,” Yost said. “We’re in a pennant race, man.”
The nine innings on Sunday belied the stakes of this season. But the final frames of this 10-day trip should not offset the productivity of the preceding 72 innings. The Royals (72-57) went 6-3 on this trek and picked up 1 1/2 games on the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central.
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A 10-game stand at Kauffman Stadium awaits. After a makeup game against the Yankees on Monday, Kansas City faces Cleveland, Minnesota and these same Rangers. Texas may be the worst team in baseball, and on Sunday, the Royals missed a chance for a sweep.
The primary culprits were the nine hitters. The Royals could not touch Scott Baker, a long reliever forced into emergency duty. Save for a solo homer by Billy Butler, Baker escaped five innings unscathed before turning the game over to his bullpen.
“We mis-hit some balls,” Butler said. “That’s what he thrives on.”
Vargas (10-6, 3.17 ERA), Baker’s counterpart, thrives on nicking the corners of the plate. He could not do so on Sunday. He lacked his premium arsenal of pitches, gave up a season-high 11 hits and walked four. It was a quality start, with only three runs allowed, but far from aesthetically pleasing. The Rangers forced him to operate under duress all afternoon amid 95-degree heat.
Yost disliked the snug strike zone of umpire Toby Basner. Midway through the fourth, he departed the dugout, in part to strategize with Vargas and in part to hector Basner. Yost felt the zone was consistent, but it still hampered his starter.
“Vargy’s a guy that really works the corners really well,” Yost said. “Changes speed really well. Keeps the ball down really well. When the strike zone’s shrunk, it doesn’t play into his advantage. I thought that were 10 or 12 pitches that could have gone his way but didn’t — and that changes the whole at-bat.”
Vargas was more diplomatic. “I don’t talk about umpires,” Vargas said. “Or have any comments about them.”
The non-answer served as enough of a comment. Vargas is a straight-forward self-analyst, with little interest in delving deeply into his process.
“They hit it hard when they needed to,” Vargas said. “They were able to put the runs across the board when they had to. It’s just how it worked out.”
He looked worrisome in the first inning. He gave up a leadoff double to a 28-year-old rookie outfielder named Dan Robertson. He walked the next batter, shortstop Elvis Andrus. When Adrian Beltre stroked a double into the left-field corner, two runs appeared assured.
Then the Royals defense intervened. Gordon scooped the baseball and fed Alcides Escobar. His throw toward home was textbook. Salvador Perez slapped a tag on Andrus’ ribs before his hands touched the plate. “Nobody makes that play better than Esky in this league,” Yost said.
The defense was less precise in the second frame. Vargas is a sure-handed fielder, with quick reflexes and steely nerves. But he erred on a bunt by speedster Leonys Martin. Vargas skipped a throw a few feet to the right of Butler. Martin advanced to second.
Martin scored the second run soon after. Utility infielder Adam Rosales cracked a floater that skimmed the glove of Mike Moustakas. It was an RBI double. “When there’s runners on base, you don’t have to hit it hard for them to score,” Vargas said.
Hits continued to fall for Texas in the third. Alex Rios doubled. Subsequent singles by J.P. Arencibia and Robinson Chirinos shuttled him home.
Down by three runs, Butler put his team on the board. He rocketed a slider off the left-field fence for his ninth homer this season and his second in three days here. From there, the offense disappeared.
“We didn’t have many chances,” Butler said. “We didn’t do much. Just one of those games.”