In the moments after a 9-8 loss, after a nine-game winning streak had vanished inside Fenway Park on late Saturday night, Royals catcher Drew Butera returned to the visitors clubhouse and looked for a video screen. He wanted to rewatch the decisive moment, a twisting, athletic roll-slide from Boston’s Sandy Leon that delivered a walk-off victory. He wished to see how his glove had missed the body of Leon, a 5-foot-10, 225-pound catcher who had broken for home on the game’s final play.
“A few inches,” Butera said.
On a marathon night at Fenway Park, in a bizarre affair that lasted four hours, 45 minutes and featured four errors, at least two base running blunders, a crucial defensive miscue in right field, and a litany of wild pitches and passed balls, the Royals’ nine-game winning streak officially came to an end on a strange play in the bottom of the 10th inning.
In his second inning of work, reliever Mike Minor faced Boston’s Eduardo Nunez with runners at second and third and one out after a pitch had skipped away from Butera behind the plate. Butera was playing because Salvador Perez had exited for pinch runner Terrance Gore in the top of the ninth. (Gore was caught stealing at second). The infield was playing in to cut down the run at home. Nunez hit a chopper to the left of shortstop Alcides Escobar, who dived to corral the baseball.
Escobar rolled over and fired to first base, and for a moment, Leon, the runner at third, did not break. Standing near the mound, Minor believed the Royals had caught a break.
“I thought: ‘OK, this is our second chance right here,’ ” Minor said. “Because I thought for sure he wasn’t going to break after the throw.”
But as the throw sailed toward first, Leon sprinted toward home. He had opened the inning with a double off the wall in left-center and moved to third on the wild pitch. He sought to test the arm of first baseman Eric Hosmer, who caught the ball at first for the second out and relayed a perfect strike that beat the runner. Butera received the throw and turned to tag Leon, who lunged to his right and rolled toward home, slapping his right arm on the plate as Butera’s glove whiffed.
“I saw him reach for the ball,” Leon said, “so the right side was really open, so I just tried to do what I can to touch the plate.”
In a quiet clubhouse, one that processed a loss for the first time since July 18, Butera replayed the final sequence. He felt comfortable with his positioning, he said. He received the ball in the correct spot. His glove just missed its intended target.
“I felt like I was in the right position,” Butera said. “I went to go tag and he made a good adjustment to get out of the way of it.”
Royals manager Ned Yost added: “It was a great slide. We just missed the tag.”
The final moments decided the outcome. Yet, for the Royals (54-48), the game was lost over the course of nine innings. Starter Trevor Cahill, acquired on Monday from the San Diego Padres, was nicked for five runs in four-plus innings in his first start for Kansas City. Rookie Jorge Bonifacio, who finished 1 for 6 with four strikeouts, misplayed a ball in right-center in the fourth. The bullpen, so efficient and effective in the month of July, squandered an 8-6 lead by allowing runs in the seventh and eighth innings.
Left-hander Ryan Buchter, another former Padre, opened the seventh by issuing two walks and before allowing an unearned run following a passed ball by Salvador Perez. Reliever Joakim Soria surrendered a run in the eighth on two singles, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly by Mookie Betts. The bullpen had posted an American League-leading 1.91 ERA in the month of July and a 1.82 mark in its last 10 games.
“It was just one of those nights where they just weren’t exceptionally sharp,” Yost said.
Even after night straight victories, the loss stung. Whit Merrifield matched a career high with four hits. Lorenzo Cain tucked a three-run homer inside Pesky’s Pole in the fourth, recording a 302-foot shot that ranked as the shortest homer in baseball since at least 2015.
His palms turned to the sky, his lips curling into a smile, Cain stepped on home plate and turned toward Alex Gordon and Merrifield. The moment seemed to suggest that fortune still resided with the Royals after nine straight wins.
On Saturday, they were seeking their first 10-game winning streak since 2014. Five days after being acquired from the Padres in a six-player trade, Cahill toed the rubber for the Royals for the first time. The night represented the start of the latest chapter for Cahill, a 29-year-old right-hander whose career began with significant promise in Oakland before sliding back toward mediocrity across the last three seasons.
As a 22 year old in 2010, Cahill posted an 18-8 record with a 2.92 ERA for the A’s. Four years later, he was in Arizona, toting a 5.61 ERA while falling out of a starting role. By 2016, he was essentially a (successful) full-time reliever for the Chicago Cubs.
In the months after collecting his first World Series ring, he searched for another job. He settled on San Diego, his childhood team, a place where he could likely start for a rebuilding club.
The decision paid off. The marriage worked decently for both parties. Cahill posted a 3.69 ERA in 11 starts for the Padres. He also missed close to seven weeks because of a shoulder strain. Yet, as he returned to a starting role, he pieced together his best numbers in four years.
“You get in a routine, get in rhythm,” Cahill said. “It’s a lot easier to build off that confidence when you’re going out there every five days.”
On Monday, the Padres bundled him with relievers Brandon Maurer and Buchter, sending the package to the Royals in exchange for Travis Wood, Matt Strahm, infield prospect Esteury Ruiz and close to $8 million. Cahill said he sensed a trade was a possibility.
“It’s nice to come in and come to a contender again,” he said on Friday.
On his first night on the mound, he was tasked with extending a winning streak. But his curveball was not there, he said, and his first night in a Royals uniform offered disappointment.
“It’s one of those things, the last couple of starts my breaking stuff hasn’t been there and I’ve had to rely on the sinker and change-up,” he said. “And then going through the lineup, two or three times, the hitter makes an adjustment.”
In his estimation, the performance was “not very good.” By the end, the Royals could share in the assessment as a whole. On a long, sloppy night of a baseball, a winning streak came to an abrupt halt. The end was measured in inches.
“I came back and looked at the replay,” Butera said. “It was pretty close.”