If there is one pitcher the Royals have been able to count on this season, without any hesitation that he would crumple, it is closer Kelvin Herrera.
He’d amassed an 0.60 ERA in 16 games, collected eight saves and limited batters to a .170 average in 14 2/3 innings. In all, he'd allowed nine baserunners and only been hurt by the Red Sox when he allowed one run during a wild, extra-innings night two weeks ago in Boston.
But on Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium, he allowed three hits, including a two-out single to Joey Wendle that gave the Rays a ninth-inning lead in what became a 6-5 Royals loss, their fifth in six games.
Before he lofted a fly ball to right field, stranding a runner at first base and ending the game, Whit Merrifield had given the Royals hope. He’d driven in three of the Royals’ five runs, tied the score at 5-5 in the seventh inning and extended his hitting streak to nine games with an RBI single in the fifth.
But for just the second time this season, Herrera showed he was mortal. He allowed back-to-back singles, then retired two batters in a row.
Wendle, however, took advantage of a change-up put over the outside corner of the plate, lining a single to left field and raising Herrera’s ERA to 1.15.
"You feel pretty good going into the ninth inning with a tie," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "You’re sitting on the bench thinking, ‘OK, we got six outs. They gotta get three. So we’ve got two chances to win the ballgame here, with Kel going out there.' Felt good about it. Just didn’t work out."
Such is the state of affairs: Starting pitcher Ian Kennedy had so much trouble locating his fastball in the first inning that, after he yielded three runs without recording a second out, the Royals called down to the bullpen and asked for rookie reliever Brad Keller to start warming up.
The move almost seemed prophetic. Yost indicated hours earlier, for the second time since Saturday, that Keller might find himself in the starting rotation this summer. After all, the Royals acquired Keller in the Rule 5 draft with the understanding he would eventually start for them. To do so this season, though, the Royals would need to start stretching out his appearances — he worked more than 1 2/3 innings for the first time in his career when he pitched three innings and won on Friday in Cleveland.
Had Kennedy unraveled and came anywhere near replicating his nine-run outing from Thursday, Tuesday would have provided that opportunity.
In the end, Keller never entered the game. Kennedy worked six innings, threw 101 pitches and surrendered five runs. After he issued a four-pitch walk to Carlos Gomez and received a visit from pitching coach Cal Eldred in the first inning, Kennedy struck out the ninth batter of the inning for his third out of the game. He had retired 13 of 16 when the Rays’ Mallex Smith, who eventually scored on a sacrifice bunt, doubled to lead off the sixth inning.
"He didn’t look very good to me," Yost said. "In one of those situations where you’re hoping that he can make an adjustment and settle in. That’s exactly what he did. He did a great job of grinding through six innings, keeping the score within check so that we could at least stay in the game and have a chance to win it."
How the Royals tied the game: With runners in scoring position and no outs in the seventh, Abraham Almonte failed to execute a squeeze bunt and grounded out to first base. Then Ryan Goins struck out.
But Merrifield came through, poking a two-run single over the extended glove of Rays second baseman Joey Wendle.
“Losing sucks. Nobody likes to lose," Merrifield said. "We’re tired of losing. Guys are showing up, playing hard. Guys are putting in the work. Guys want to win.”
Up next: The Royals, who fell to 13-29, will close this series with the Rays on Wednesday at 1:15 p.m.