The baseball sliced into the outfield, eliciting a vapor trail of gasps and groans in its wake. With one swing, White Sox third baseman Conor Gillaspie shattered a pair of scoreless inning streaks, punished Royals manager Ned Yost for his aggressive deployment of his relievers and cost Kansas City the lead in an eventual 7-5 defeat.
In the defining at-bat of an interminable game, the longest nine-inning contest in franchise history, Gillaspie cleared the bases with his line drive, and netted a three-run triple off Kansas City relief stud Wade Davis. The initial two runs belonged to Kelvin Herrera. Together they had stitched together 62 1/3 innings without allowing a run.
“We’ve got to pull out all the stops,” Yost said. “And do all we can do to win a baseball game.”
Which made the eventual result all the more stunning.
A ripple of shock coursed through Kauffman Stadium as the bases emptied. Just two days prior, Yost had stuck with his self-imposed restrictions, refused to use Herrera or Davis in a crucial sixth-inning spot and set his club up for failure. Now he reversed course and utilized his best relievers in the game’s highest-leverage spots to protect a one-run — only to watch them fail.
Such is the cruelty of baseball, and the torture wrought by the season’s marathon. Even the right moves can backfire. Skidding toward the finish line, the Royals (82-68) find themselves unable to stabilize. They haven’t won back-to-back games in nearly two weeks. Their hold on the second Wild Card spot is tenuous. On Tuesday, even their two most reliable relievers disappointed.
“That’s why you put them in,” Yost said. “They haven’t given up a run since June.”
So the reaction from the crowd was understandable. Perhaps it was the obvious: Herrera had not allowed a run since June 24; Davis had allowed his last run a day later. Perhaps it was the setting: Yost utilized Davis, his usual eighth-inning man, in the seventh inning after sending Herrera in with two outs in the sixth. Or perhaps it was the stakes: Earlier in the night, the Tigers had lost to Minnesota, opening the door for Kansas City to gain ground in the division race.
The Royals could not close the 1 1/2-game gap on Detroit and slim their deficit heading into this weekend’s three-day clash at Kauffman Stadium. In order to salvage a series victory over the White Sox, Kansas City must best southpaw ace Chris Sale on Wednesday. Sale will be far more formidable than any hurler the Royals faced Tuesday.
A day after racing away with a walkoff victory, Kansas City engaged Chicago in a skirmish pocked with poor pitching. Liam Hendriks, the Royals starter, could not record an out in the fourth inning. His counterpart, Chris Bassitt, left with two outs in the bottom of the frame.
It became a battle between bullpens. The shock was the Royals flinched. With two outs in the sixth, Yost yanked reliever Brandon Finnegan in favor of Herrera. He picked up the last out, but rested on the bench during a lengthy bottom of the frame.
When the seven began, Herrera lacked his usual crispness. He yielded a pair of back-to-back hits. After shortstop Alexei Ramirez beat out a double-play ball, Herrera was done. Davis entered with one out, runners at the corners and MVP candidate Jose Abreu at the plate. Davis picked up two strikes but still issued a walk. Seven pitchers later, on a 97-mph fastball at the knees, Gillaspie’s triple whistled through air and put Chicago ahead.
“I just didn’t make the pitches I needed to make to get us out of that inning,” Davis said. “That put us in a bad spot.”
In planning for Tuesday, the Royals exercised caution. It was Danny Duffy’s turn in the rotation. He had not played since leaving the Yankee Stadium mound one pitch into a start 10 days ago. He received five days off to treat the inflammation in his left rotator cuff.
Duffy rebounded well from the rest. His throwing sessions during the interim caused him no pain. He told team officials he felt ready to start. They instructed him to complete a simulated game on Tuesday afternoon instead. Team officials wondered how Duffy would channel his pent-up energy on the mound.
So on Tuesday afternoon, he squared off for four innings against a passive collection of Royals bench players. The actual assignment for facing the White Sox fell to Hendriks. In his previous outing, tasked with replacing Duffy against Boston, he could not complete three innings.
Chicago jumped him from the first at-bat. Adam Eaton, a pesky leadoff hitter, lined an 0-2 changeup into center field and zoomed into second base for a double. He might have been nabbed, but second baseman Omar Infante dropped the throw from Jarrod Dyson.
Two at-bats later, after a single by Ramirez and a groundball RBI by Abreu, Eaton gave the White Sox the lead. Eaton stung the Royals again in the third, ripping a triple and scoring on a sacrifice fly for Chicago’s second run.
“I didn’t command my stuff,” Hendriks said. “I needed to throw my pitches with a little more authority. I was tentative on some pitches. And it showed. They took some good pitches. They swung at my bad ones and hit them well. It was very frustrating for me tonight.”
A rare event sparked the second-inning response from Kansas City. Salvador Perez saw six pitches in his at-bat. Four were balls. He accepted a walk, just his third in the second half and his first since Aug. 12.
Perez benefited from the shaky command of Bassitt, a 25-year-old right-hander making his third big-league start. As a prospect, Bassitt lacked a lofty ceiling. He missed most of this season with a broken hand. Before Tuesday, he had pitched 13 1/3 innings above Class AA.
The lack of polish showed. Eric Hosmer slapped an opposite-field single and Omar Infante walked to load the bases. Mike Moustakas lunged across the plate for a curveball and guided it through the right side of the infield for an RBI single.
The Royals returned to work in the third. Once again, Bassitt walked an unlikely recipient. This time it was Alcides Escobar. Nori Aoki shattered his bat on a single and Lorenzo Cain filled the bases with a walk of his own.
White Sox manager Robin Ventura maneuvered his infield to defend against Alex Gordon. Second baseman Carlos Sanchez shifted away from the bag. His positioning was fortunate. Gordon rolled a two-run single right through the ground traditionally manned by a second baseman.
The lead would not hold for long. Hendriks promptly surrendered a single, a walk and another single to start the fourth.
“I threw some good pitches,” Hendriks said. “They got some jam shots that landed. After that, I fell apart.”
Yost had seen enough. He called upon Jason Frasor to smother the threat.
Across 11 seasons, most of them with Toronto, Frasor had pitched in 644 games. Only five times before had he been sent into a game in the fourth inning. He yielded a pair of sacrifice flies as Chicago reclaimed the lead.
The Royals managed to tie the game again in the fifth. The recipe was familiar. Facing reliever Daniel Webb, Gordon walked. So did Eric Hosmer. Gordon nabbed third on a wild pitch. A sacrifice fly by Infante brought him home. Nori Aoki would crack an RBI single to put Kansas City in front in the sixth.
“We came back and got the lead,” Yost said. “And just couldn’t hold it.”