His arrival foretold the end. Three hours and 32 minutes after the game began, the bullpen door opened and Bruce Chen lugged his 37-year-old frame to the mound.
His task was to protect a 10th-inning deadlock. His performance reminded why he has appeared in eight games for the Royals in the last two months.
Chen absorbed a six-run pounding from the Twins, and the Royals missed out on a sweep thanks to an 11-5 defeat. Manager Ned Yost deployed his relievers in hopes of winning during regulation. Once the game spilled into extra time, Chen morphed the game into a rout.
“I didn’t make good pitches,” Chen said. “They kept getting base hit after base hit after base hit. I should have been able to make better pitches, so I could have been able to get out of that inning.”
His performance emptied the ballpark. The 17,219 in attendance banked toward the exits before the 10th inning ended. The result let the Tigers creep one game closer in the American League Central. When the Indians arrive here today, Kansas City, 74-59, will try to protect a 1 1/2-game lead.
Yost found himself with few other options Thursday. Jeremy Guthrie completed six middling innings, giving up five runs and nine hits. Francisley Bueno picked up two outs in the seventh and Jason Frasor collected the last of the inning. When Alex Gordon tied the game with a solo blast that inning, Yost opted to remove Frasor and utilize his late-game weapons.
His offense created a mirage after Gordon’s blast. Billy Butler picked up a walk. Two batters later, so did Lorenzo Cain. Out in the bullpen, Kelvin Herrera warmed up. But the Royals came up empty, unable to push across the go-ahead tally, and Yost decided to send in Herrera.
With Wade Davis resting after having pitched the previous two nights, Herrera handled the eighth and Greg Holland pitched the ninth. For the 10th, Yost chose Chen over Scott Downs, who was activated that afternoon after three weeks on the disabled list because of a stiff neck.
“Bruce,” Yost said, “was our length guy.”
Chen fills a curious role on this club. He lost his spot in the starting rotation in April and missed two months because of a back injury. His usage is minimal. He mentors and translates for rookie Yordano Ventura. About an hour before Thursday’s game, he met with fans for a social-media event inside the ballpark.
Once on the mound, Chen combusted. He surrendered a one-out triple to outfielder Oswaldo Arcia. The dugout called for an intentional walk to third baseman Trevor Plouffe. Chen threw two strikes to Joe Mauer before issuing a walk.
“That’s what you want, you want to get him, 0-2, and then make a good pitch so he either grounds into a double play or you strike him out,” Chen said. “I kept falling behind in the count, and he got a walk. He’s a good hitter.”
The walk loaded the bases. Then came the avalanche. Eduardo Nunez singled up the middle for one run. Jordan Schafer singled in two more. Chen gave up back-to-back doubles to Brian Dozier and Kurt Suzuki to complete the pillorying.
Thursday marked the seventh time in 13 games this season Chen has allowed four runs or more in an appearance. To put that statistic in perspective: In 56 games this season, Davis has given up five runs total.
But he was unavailable, and so the Royals were forced to scramble. Yost bemoaned the team’s inability to pull ahead. Guthrie fretted over a few misplaced pitches which cost him.
“Today would have been one of those great wins for us, when we didn’t get a great pitching performance, but the offense picked it up,” he said. “It would have a great win. As it is, it’s a loss.”
Guthrie dumped his team in a two-run, first-inning hole, but the Royals erased the deficit in the bottom of the inning. Gordon lifted an RBI single to right to bring home Alcides Escobar. Billy Butler passed on four consecutive fastballs from Twins lefty Tommy Milone for a walk, and Salvador Perez tied things with an RBI single.
Like Milone, Guthrie rarely misses bats. The Twins commenced cracking him around in the fourth: A double by Chris Parmelee, an RBI single by Schafer, a walk by Danny Santana and another RBI single by Dozier.
Guthrie veers between the poles of excellence and mediocrity. In his last start before Thursday, he yielded one run in eight innings against Texas. In the two starts before that, he surrendered 10 runs in 11 2/3 innings. And the start before that? He spun the team’s first complete game of the season.
His reliability may be in question. But the Royals continue to lean on him. Guthrie figures to be a prominent contributor down the stretch. Yordano Ventura missed his last start due to back soreness, and has lagged somewhat down the stretch. During the playoffs, Ventura could move into the bullpen, with Guthrie still in the rotation.
Of course, the Royals must reach October to solve these riddles. Down a pair of runs, the offense sought to even the tide. Christian Colon delivered an RBI single in the fourth. After Escobar tripled in the fifth, Butler singled him home.
Yet Guthrie remained unsteady. He issued a leadoff walk, a scourge to pitchers everywhere, in the sixth. Two batters later, Schafer stroked an RBI double down the right-field line, and the Royals trailed once more.
“We couldn’t break their serve,” Yost said.
The Royals held the line until the game’s final inning. When the rosters expand on Sept. 1, the team can cull pitchers from a surplus called up from the minors. On Thursday, they had to lean on Chen. The result was disastrous.
“I should have just pitched better,” Chen said. “Maybe if we put up a zero in that inning, we can win.”