The Royals started Thursday’s final home stand on positive note when leadoff hitter Nori Aoki rocketed a double into the right-field corner.
Sadly for the Royals, the game continued.
A 6-3 loss to the Red Sox occurred in many ways. The all-too-familiar punchless offense returned with the team from its recent road trip. But the Royals had managed to work around that shortcoming and maintain their Central Division lead with superb pitching and defense.
Thursday, it all collapsed and so did the division lead, to a half-game over the idle Tigers. The Royals, 80-65, have as many victories and one fewer loss than Detroit.
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The plan of knocking around a couple of teams out of playoff contention at Kauffman Stadium — the White Sox follow Boston, with the Tigers arriving next weekend — got off to a lousy start.
So much for riding momentum from Wednesday’s stirring victory and James Shields’ masterpiece at Detroit that kept the Royals in first place.
“It’s baseball,” Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar said. “That happens. We turn the page and come back tomorrow.”
The troubles started soon after Aoki’s double.
Aoki moved to third on Omar Infante’s sacrifice bunt, and up stepped Alex Gordon. He’s been scuffling, dropping 10 points off his batting average in September entering Thursday.
But here was Gordon’s opportunity to be productive. Instead, he waived at consecutive Clay Buchholz off-speed pitches for a strikeout. Aoki remained stranded when with Eric Hosmer took a called strike three.
“It seems like it’s a team-wide struggle,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “But the good thing about it is things can turn around quick. One hit in one game and the floodgates open and here we go back scoring runs.”
The Royals have been here before, searching for a big hit. But their arms and gloves usually hadn’t let them down.
Both did over the next few innings, starting with the top of second when the Red Sox opened the scoring on a ball that dribbled through the wicket of Hosmer, who won a Gold Glove last season. Will Middlebrooks, who had doubled, scored with two outs.
Two more Red Sox scored in the third when starter Liam Hendriks couldn’t find his control, issuing two walks, a hit batter and two singles.
“I was leaking and flying open, trying to will it there too much and not actually just throw the ball,” Hendriks said. “I just needed to go out there and throw it. … It wasn’t acceptable.”
Hendricks, taking the rotation turn of injured Danny Duffy, was finished after 2 1/3 innings, and a stitched-together relief effort by Casey Coleman, Louis Coleman and Brandon Finnegan kept things close until late.
The only blemish through the middle innings came when errors by the infield’s left side, Escobar and Mike Moustakas, pinned an unearned run on Casey Coleman in the fourth. The Royals had their second game with three or more errors this season.
The Red Sox threw away an inning of their own and allowed the Royals to take a brief lead.
Lorenzo Cain, who tripled in his final at-bat in Detroit on Wednesday, smacked a two-out double to the left-field gap in his first plate appearance Thursday.
Escobar got enough wood on a Buchholz pitch to loft a floater into short right field. Second baseman Jemile Weeks appeared to have a play. Then he didn’t. Weeks leaped but the ball sailed just over his glove, and Cain scored easily.
After Escobar stole second without a throw, Aoki followed with one of his swinging dribblers, this one fielded by Middlebrooks at third. His throw was too late to catch Aoki, and first baseman Mike Napoli compounded the issue by trying to gun down Escobar, who took a wide turn at third.
The throw bounced past Middlebrooks, far enough away to allow Escobar to race home and make it 2-1.
The lead lasted until the Red Sox came to bat in the third.
The Royals got one back in the sixth on a Cain RBI single, but when the Red Sox scored a pair of runs against Aaron Crow in the eighth, the deficit was too large for a team mired in an offensive slump.
The attack against the American League’s downtrodden will have to begin today.