The rogue kitten appeared in center field at just past 9:35 p.m. here on Wednesday, after the Cardinals had loaded the bases in the sixth inning against the Royals at Busch Stadium, but minutes before another night unraveled and a bullpen came apart in an 8-5 loss.
In the moment, a baseball game stood still as reliever Peter Moylan stood atop the mound and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina dug in at the plate, only to pause and point out at the kitten frolicking around center fielder Lorenzo Cain.
The disturbance caused a baseball stadium to erupt, and the noise startled Moylan, and for close to two minutes, the action was delayed as a member of the staff at Busch Stadium jogged out toward center field to retrieve the cat.
“I thought it must have been something with the scoreboard,” Moylan said. “I turned around and there’s a kitten running around. Which is the first time that’s happened to me.”
The member of the grounds crew arrived in center field, snatched the kitten by the torso and turned back toward the left-field line, surviving the wrath of its claws along the way. For close to two minutes, Moylan stood ready to make the most important pitches of the game.
The inning had begun with the Royals leading 5-4 and manager Ned Yost sending reliever Brandon Maurer out to face the pitcher’s spot, which he anticipated would be a pinch hitter. It was, and the sequence started in earnest, with a single from Greg Garcia and a walk issued to Matt Carpenter.
Yost had seen enough from one of his newly-acquired arms from San Diego and Moylan was summoned to put out the fire. He coaxed a line-out from former Royals farmhand Jose Martinez before striking out Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong on three pitches.
Moments later, Moylan issued an intentional walk to Dexter Fowler to set up a matchup with the right-handed hitting Molina. All season long, the Australian reliever had dominated right-handed hitters with confounding submarining stuff. On this night, he needed one more out to preserve a one-run lead.
“You don’t like to [pitch to Molina with the bases loaded] because he’s really hot right now,” Yost said. “You make a mistake and he’s going to hit it hard.”
On the first pitch, Moylan missed with a slider. As he prepared to go back to work, the kitten slipped onto the field and interrupted the at-bat. Two minutes and one pitch later, Moylan hurled a side-arm fastball that was supposed to be down and away. It came back toward the middle of the zone. Molina put his barrel on the baseball and poked a grand slam over the wall in left field.
“Once you get that second out, you think: ‘OK, one more, and you’re a hero,’ ” Moylan said, standing in a quiet clubhouse. “But unfortunately, Yadi’s the hero.”
The swing delivered the Royals (57-56) their third loss in three days against the cross-state Cardinals. When the night was over, Kansas City had lost eight of 10, fallen out of the second American League wild card spot and remained four games behind first-place Cleveland, which lost against Colorado.
The performance of Maurer and Moylan had wasted a go-ahead, two-run blast from Melky Cabrera in the top of the fifth inning. The Royals had led 3-0 after 1 1/2 innings before falling behind 4-3 in the bottom of the fourth.
Making his third start, Trevor Cahill procured just seven outs and issued five walks before departing. He surrendered three runs in 2 1/3 innings, the outing taxing the bullpen for another night.
In three outings since being acquired from the Padres, along with Maurer and reliever Ryan Buchter, Cahill has failed to survive five innings. In 11 total innings, he has allowed 10 earned runs while walking nine.
“The last four starts, really,” Cahill said, trying to identify the issue. “I’m just kind of battling command. The sinker hasn’t been there and the curveball hasn’t been there. That’s kind of been my recipe for success this year.”
The Royals, of course, traded for Cahill believing that even a major-league-average starter would be an upgrade over what they had been trotting out at the No. 5 spot. In 11 starts for the Padres, Cahill had posted a 3.69 ERA and struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings. But thus far, the gambit has not paid off.
“I thought he really labored today,” Yost said, when asked if he saw any positives from Cahill. “I thought his last start was better than his first start. But I thought he labored.”
Before the loss, and before the kitten, the Royals settled inside the visitors clubhouse here at Busch Stadium and prepped for the second leg of a four-game home-and-home series against the Cardinals.
The clubhouse remained quiet at just past 4:15 p.m. Wednesday as a collection of players inspected their phones. Yost sank into a chair inside his office, donning a T-shirt dedicated to Moylan’s “Sledge-iatto” espresso drink.
For more than two months, Yost had grabbed the wheel of this bus and held on as it cruised for miles and skidded for others. First came six victories in seven games as the calendar flipped from June to July. Then came a 1-7 stretch sandwiched around the All-Star break. Then a nine-game winning streak in late July, and another 3-8 stretch entering Wednesday night in St. Louis.
As Yost sat, his mind drifted to the streaks and to the standings in the American League Central. At the least, he said, he looked at the final months of the season in simple terms.
“The thing you always fall back on is we have a month and a half to the season and we’ve got to win four more games than Cleveland,” Yost said. “That’s basically what we’ve got to do.”
Nearly seven hours later, Whit Merrifield matched his career high with four hits. Cabrera came through with a clutch homer. And then a kitten had appeared on the field and the Royals lost again.
For now, they are streaking in the wrong direction. There are 49 games left.
“You just think that tomorrow is going to be the day you get on the right track,” Moylan said. “No one in here has lost faith.”