Aaron Crow gazed at the landing spot in the visitors’ bullpen for a few seconds before he looked away. He had just thrown the pitch that on Sunday sunk the Royals, a fastball that Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava whacked for a grand slam. As the shock reverberated through Kauffman Stadium, the proximity of a once-assured victory, an outcome now dashed, galled manager Ned Yost.
He was close, so achingly close, to turning this game over to his vaunted three-pack of relief pitchers. Yet in the sixth inning of an 8-4 loss to the Red Sox, his team’s fifth defeat in seven games, Yost witnessed a collision between the reality of the situation and the rigidity of his bullpen deployment. During a moment when urgency should have trumped orthodoxy, Yost declined to break from routine. His decision cost his club.
“It’s frustrating that we were one out away from getting to Kelvin Herrera with a one-run lead,” he said. “That was frustrating.”
In the postgame postmortem, the obvious follow-up was asked. Why not just use Herrera in the sixth inning then?
“Because I had confidence in Aaron Crow,” Yost said. “That’s why. Aaron Crow’s inning is the sixth inning. Kelvin’s is the seventh.”
The rules of major-league baseball do not include a provision barring a seventh-inning reliever from pitching in the sixth. But the dogma of baseball managers does preclude such a maneuver. Yost falls in line with the game’s traditions. Relief pitchers receive roles, and managers are wary of deviating from them.
The practice aided the Royals during the season’s second half, as Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland formed a suffocating trio. Yet Yost’s adherence to his doctrine hamstrung his team on Sunday, exposing Crow and granting Nava a chance to further sink Kansas City’s hopes in the American League Central.
In essence, Yost handed Crow a jug of gasoline and asked him to walk a tightrope across a fire created by starter Jason Vargas. Three batters into his appearance, Crow lost his balance.
The meltdown erased the good cheer from earlier in the afternoon, when the Royals held a four-run lead and a return to the top of the American League Central looked possible. Instead, the Royals (81-67) fell 1 1/2 games behind Detroit in the division after the Tigers beat the Cleveland Indians 6-4 earlier Sunday.
Stunned by Nava’s homer, the offense stagnated. They confined their activity to a five-hit burst in the second inning. Otherwise, the team provided nary a knock until two fruitless flurries in the eighth and ninth.
A loss by Seattle let the Royals retain their tenuous grasp on the second wild card. The club can steady themselves with three games against the White Sox starting Monday. Then again, Kansas City just dropped three of four to the last-place Red Sox, a club ravaged by injuries, thinned by trades and staggering toward the finish line.
“Do I think this is going to cause us to fade? No,” Vargas said. “But we need to play better ball. That’s for sure. Because we’re running out of games.”
After a four-run barrage in the second inning, keyed by a three-run homer from Eric Hosmer, the Royals’ offense ran out of steam. They went 21 plate appearances in between hits. And still the club possessed enough offense to survive heading into the sixth.
Each decision Yost made invited questioning. He removed Vargas from the game despite a season-high eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings. Vargas, at least, did not bash the maneuver.
“We were in a situation where we needed to get guys out as soon as possible,” Vargas said. “We had a right-hander coming up. We have plenty of capable arms out in the bullpen.”
With two runners in scoring position, the game hung in the balance. Yost would say later he desired a pitcher capable of getting a strikeout. His choice would inspire scratched heads and gnashed teeth.
Yost looked away from Herrera, Davis and Holland. He ignored the veteran presence of Jason Frasor, who fans a batter per inning. He settled upon Crow, who is undergoing the worst of his four big-league seasons. Crow entered the game with a career-low 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings, down from 8.3 per nine in 2013 and 9.4 per nine in his All-Star season of 2011.
That pitcher from the past has not yet appeared this season. Crow lost fastball velocity. He had already surrendered a career-high for home runs. He fell behind Cespedes 3-0 and eventually walked him.
“It’s not a big deal,” Crow said. “Puts the double play in order.”
Crow sought that outcome against Allen Craig, who would not oblige. But he did strike out. To the plate came Nava, a switch hitter who struggles to hit lefties.
With the bases loaded, another reliever hopped up and began to throw. He was neither Herrera nor Davis nor Holland. He was not Frasor. He was not a southpaw like Francisley Bueno or dart-throwing rookie Brandon Finnegan.
The reliever was Louis Coleman, a mop-up man of middle relief, a pitcher who spent the majority of the summer in the Pacific Coast League. Coleman would cough up a run on his own during the seventh. That was the salt. The wound would open soon enough.
Nava noticed the action in the Kansas City bullpen. He told reporters later he expected to see a lefty. He began Sunday with a .158 batting average against them compared with a .286 batting average against righties. He could not believe he would be allowed to face a right-hander pitcher.
In this moment, Yost was handcuffed by the presence of Boston’s right-handed slugger Mike Napoli and the specter of the past. Yost could not afford to repeat the calamity at Fenway Park, when pinch-hitter Jonny Gomes homered off lefty specialist Scott Downs. Napoli was given the day off to rest, but Yost feared Red Sox manager John Farrell would activate him.
So it was up to Crow. His encounter with Nava lasted one pitch. He tried to throw a sinker down and away. His body did not cooperate. He yanked the pitch across the inner half of the plate.
“It just stayed up,” Crow said. “Didn’t have the action I was looking for. He ended up hitting it out.”
The drive stunned the 19,065 fans gathered here. Lorenzo Cain squinted through the sun to locate the baseball. He turned and chased it back to the right-field bullpen. When he reached the chain-link fence, the ball crashed into the grass on the other side. He was close, so achingly close.
Like his other teammates, Cain looked sufficiently hollow-eyed and dejected after the game. The Royals have not trailed Detroit by more than a game since Aug. 9. They have now lost two series in a row for the first time in the second half.
“Fourteen games left,” Cain said. “Yeah, we’ve got plenty of time. We’ve definitely got to play better. But at the same time, we’ve got enough time to get going and start winning some ballgames.”
The assessment is accurate. If the season ended Sunday, the Royals would fly to Oakland for a one-game playoff.
The season did not end Sunday. No, this club must survive two more weeks of attrition. They must compensate for an offense that performs as if crafted by a lazy magician — capable only of disappearances. The defense has shown cracks in recent days. On Sunday, they were unable to overcome the strictness of their manager’s bullpen usage.
At this moment, the Royals cannot even be counted upon to defeat teams who dwell in cellars like Boston. Near the end of Yost’s news conference, a reporter asked if the club could afford to drop three games like this to this level of competition.
“No,” he said. “No. No.”
He started to say something else. Then he stopped short. “That’s it,” he said. He pushed his chair back from the table and walked out of the room.