The wind punished the flags hanging high above the outfield walls. A hail of plastic bags and paper napkins whipped through the sky. During a rain delay that postponed what would have been a crushing Royals loss, a sudden storm dispersed the remnants of a capacity crowd and provided imagery that was cruel but fitting.
The game will resume on Sept. 22 with the Royals trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the 10th inning to the Cleveland Indians. The game will be played at Progressive Field in Cleveland, hours before the start of a three-game series there. The ending on Sunday marked an anticlimactic finish to a deflating night at Kauffman Stadium.
“It’s not over yet,” manager Ned Yost said. “We’ve still got half an inning to play.”
Indeed, but the moment was lost. The energy seeped from the ballpark in stages. As the Royals staggered toward their fourth consecutive loss of a similar vintage, the early optimistic vibes faded into desperation. The crowd appeared exultant when Alex Gordon’s ninth-inning homer tied the game. Yet they departed this park merely disconsolate and soggy, even if the final result is still in doubt.
In the 10th inning, moments after Lonnie Chisenhall’s two-run double off closer Greg Holland crashed into the right-field fence, the crowd turned their backs to the product on the field and fled for the exits. The weather arrived in the middle of the inning and paused the game for three weeks.
“Maybe they’ll catch us,” Gordon said, “when we’re hitting a little better.”
The Royals (74-61) entered with a half-game lead atop the American League Central. A 6-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox earlier Sunday by the Detroit Tigers assured the Royals they would remain there. But Kansas City welcomed a third challenger to the race this weekend by suffering through a sweep by the Indians. Cleveland trails the Royals by 3 1/2 games, and made their case for contention here.
The Indians stoked a two-out rally after first baseman Billy Butler flubbed a softly struck groundball. He attempted to shovel the ball to Holland before he secured it safely within his glove.
Two batters later, Chisenhall walloped a knee-high slider that shattered the veneer of confidence created by Gordon. The Royals have not been swept since July 20, when Boston dusted them off for three nights at Fenway Park. The effort there inspired team meetings and coincided with a second-half revival.
“This has our season right now,” Gordon said. “We’ve been up and down all year. This is another down spell. But hopefully we can respond like we’ve done all year.”
Gordon resuscitated his team with one swing, extending his arms and powering a 95-mph fastball over the right-field fence. The blast looked eerily reminiscent of his two-run, walk-off shot here on Tuesday. His latest exploit occurred at a far more momentous time for his team – and yet only added to the evening’s sting.
A national TV audience witnessed a microcosm of the issues plaguing Kansas City as September begins. The pitching is splendid: Danny Duffy provided 6 2/3 innings of two-run baseball on a season-high 114 pitches. The defense can be spectacular: Diving stops by Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas dazzled.
Yet the offense offered a refresher course on how to crumble beneath the weight of expectations. A night after stranding 16 runners, Yost wondered whether his players abandoned all pregame planning once they arrived at the plate. Then his team went out and personified his worst fears.
“If we don’t hit, we’re not going to win,” Yost said inside his office around 4 p.m. “If we hit, we’re going to go as far as we can go. And that’ll be a long way. We’ve got to do a better job of executing.”
The performance on Sunday could not have encouraged him. The Royals swung at pitches in the dirt. They thudded others into the ground. They allowed Indians starter T.J. House to resemble an ace. House threw a career-high seven innings. He needed only 85 pitches to do so.
The eighth inning crystallized the frustration of Yost and the futility of his players. Alcides Escobar dunked a one-out single into center field. He stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error. It was up to two of the Royals’ eldest hitters, Nori Aoki and Omar Infante, to drive him home.
In these situations, Yost explained before the game, the players needed to stick with a blueprint: Hunt a pitch up in the strike zone, one that can be floated into the outfield for a sacrifice fly, rather than chasing pitches low in the zone. And what happened? Aoki tapped a low, inside cutter for a groundball out, and Infante looked overmatched as reliever Bryan Shaw struck him out.
The offense is this team’s fulcrum, the difference between salvation and failure. For more than a week now, the latter has become commonplace.
“We’ve gone through these before,” Yost said. “We just have to find a way to battle through it.”
The spotlight shown on Kansas City on Sunday. The Royals hosted ESPN2’s “Sunday Night Baseball” for the first time since July 22, 2001. Kauffman Stadium sold out in the afternoon, with fans filling all the seats for the third time this season. The stadium has been stuffed all weekend, a witness to a series of offensive disappearances.
On Tuesday, after fewer than 14,000 fans stopped by, Yost implored more to attend. Now a few hours before Sunday’s game, he wondered whether his club felt more pressure to “push a little bit” when playing in front of a packed house.
“The crowds have been fantastic,” Yost said. “I think it’s got them juiced up. They want to really perform for them. And that never works. You’ve got to stay disciplined.”
The discipline evaporated on Saturday. The Royals hit two-for-18 with runners in scoring position — and one of those hits was a measly infield single that slipped into a vacuum created by an infield shift. Yost saw a group of hitters who ditched all strategy and swung with abandon. The failure piled up for a stinging defeat.
Even Yost, the eternal optimist, conceded the obvious. “Last night was bad,” he said, admitting he cursed the game’s result even after he left the park. The mark of a winning baseball club, of course, is the ability to place a night like that in the rear-view. For that task they turned to Duffy, a fiery performer on the mound and an ebullient presence off it.
Duffy skipped from the training room to his locker before the game as Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” played in the clubhouse. He wore a T-shirt from his apparently unlimited supply of Kobe Bryant gear.
After Gordon lofted a sacrifice fly in the first, Duffy until the third. Duffy couldn’t locate his fastball against backup catcher Roberto Perez and shortstop Jose Ramirez. Both walked, setting the table for Michael Brantley’s RBI double. Brantley chipped an 0-2 fastball – on the hands, no less – over Mike Moustakas’ head for a game-tying bloop.
Duffy slammed his glove into the bench after the inning. The next frame would not help his mood. Yan Gomes reached on an infield single, and took a lead a few steps from first base. Duffy, Yost said, “thought he could catch him by surprise.”
Gomes is a catcher. He has attempted to steal two bases in his major-league career and has not yet endeavored to nab one in 2014. But Duffy still tried to pick him off. The execution cost the Royals a run. “We had an out if I made a good throw,” Duffy said.
Duffy flung the ball to Butler’s right. The ball trickled into a crevice along the right-field wall. Butler chugged after it, but here Gomes showed some speed. He bounded all the way to third, undaunted by either Butler’s foot speed or his throwing arm. A subsequent sacrifice fly by former Royal Mike Aviles gave Cleveland the lead.
“There’s still three outs to go,” Duffy said. “That’s how we have to look at it. It’s a heck of a game that’s been played so far. But it’s not over yet.”