Inside a losing clubhouse, in the wake of falling yet again to Detroit, the Royals exhibited gloom and confusion. A team official contacted MLB headquarters to see if the club could protest Saturday’s 3-2 defeat. A few players raged at the injustice of the decision, and wondered if the Kauffman Stadium videoboard operator betrayed them.
Others asked reporters for explanations. The catcher at the center of the storm, Salvador Perez, appeared perplexed.
“I don’t know what’s the rule in that situation,” he said.
Amid the chatter, fueled by a controversial call that cost the Royals the go-ahead run in the sixth inning, starter James Shields silenced the symphony of complaint. Responsibility for the loss lay inside their clubhouse, not down the hallway in the umpire’s room.
“Flat out, we should have won the ball game,” Shields said. “There’s no excuses. We didn’t do our job. Period.”
Team officials sounded dubious about their recourse in protesting the game. They would have to live with the result, their 13th loss to the Tigers in 18 games, a record that could sink Kansas City’s hopes for an American League Central crown. A day after getting waxed in the series opener, the Royals (83-70) failed to capitalize on early opportunities, wasted chances against Tigers ace Max Scherzer with tactical misjudgments and mental blunders, and saw Shields taxed by the bottom of Detroit’s order.
Shields flung his hat into the dugout and disappeared from sight as he exited the game. In perhaps his final start as a Royal at Kauffman Stadium, he wobbled in the seventh inning and surrendered an RBI single to rookie Tyler Collins, a pinch hitter making his 20th career at-bat. Another RBI knock for outfielder Rajai Davis sent Shields to the showers, with three runs allowed in 6 2/3 innings.
Eric Hosmer halved the deficit with an RBI single in the eighth. The Royals placed two runners aboard in the ninth against unsteady closer Joe Nathan. Seeking “a professional at-bat,” manager Ned Yost said, the team used Raul Ibanez as a pinch hitter, rather than Billy Butler. Ibanez rolled a soft grounder to first to end the game.
In all, the loss was a sour addition to this weekend’s discontent. Detroit extended its division lead to 2 1/2 games with a little more than a week left. Only Jeremy Guthrie stands between the Tigers and a sweep.
“It hurts,” Hosmer said. “It obviously does. But there’s nothing we can do right now. We’ve got to come out tomorrow and win.”
By then, perhaps, the details of the sixth will be sorted out. The two teams traded runs, with Torii Hunter whacking a solo shot in the fourth and Alcides Escobar evening things with an RBI single in the fifth. An inning later, Detroit attempted to give the Royals a gift. Perez erred before his team could accept it.
With one out and men on second and third, Omar Infante lined out to second baseman Ian Kinsler. Eric Hosmer hustled back to second base, but Kinsler attempted to double him up, anyway. Shortstop Eugenio Suarez was unaware of the impending throw. He never reached his glove toward it. The error appeared to give Perez license to sprint home.
“I never thought about tagging,” Perez said.
His foot never even grazed the bag. Inside the Tigers dugout, a rookie named Hernan Perez noticed. He alerted manager Brad Ausmus. Scherzer appealed the run by throwing to third base. Larry Vanover, the third-base umpire and crew chief, ruled Perez safe.
Thus began a convoluted process that left Yost confounded, his players furious, Perez out and the inning over. The umpires convened. Vanonver conferred with MLB headquarters in Manhattan to make sure the play could not be reviewed.
As Vanover communicated with his bosses, the replay rolled on the screen above center field, revealing Perez deserved to be out. In general, the videoboard operator is instructed to show the replay as soon as an umpire goes to the headset connecting to New York. After another conference with his three fellow umpires, Vanover made a fist. He would later say the decision came from their “consensus” that Perez never touched the bag, and not from peeks at the screen or a challenge by Ausmus.
“We took a consensus of the information,” Vanover said to a pool reporter. “Out of that crew consultation, we came up with the answer that he didn’t tag up.”
The crowd screeched. The Royals searched for an explanation. By then, they had already squandered their best shots at Scherzer. In the first three innings, Yost twice allowed his hottest hitter, Nori Aoki, to bunt and sacrifice outs with runners in scoring position.
Alcides Escobar doubled off Scherzer to start the first. Aoki, the team’s No. 2 hitter, had collected 13 hits with an .813 batting average in the previous four games. But he felt compelled to merely advance Escobar to third, rather than bring him home.
“If I was a cleanup hitter, then it would be a different situation,” Aoki said through his interpreter, Kosuke Inaji. “But the type of hitter I am, and what’s expected out of me, I’ve got to get the guy over. In the past, too, people have told me, in that situation I need to get the guy over no matter what.”
So he bunted on his own accord. He insisted later he was trying to fit his game within his team’s style. He also revealed a window into an offensive philosophy that vexes observers.
“You can probably tell, too, just watching us play,” Aoki said. “We’re always playing for one run. We’re playing for that run, as opposed to trying to get two or three.”
Escobar advanced to third. There he remained, after Josh Willingham and Alex Gordon struck out.
In stunning fashion, a similar opportunity sprouted in the third. Jarrod Dyson chopped a leadoff single and Escobar followed with another knock. With two on and none out, up came Aoki. He expected the dugout to call for a bunt. He was not wrong.
“I felt like if we could get a lead, (Shields) was going to take us home,” Yost said. “So we put the runners in scoring position hoping with our No. 3, 4 guys up that we’d get a hit.”
So Aoki sacrificed once again. In a big-league ballpark, the advancement of runners usually invites polite applause. This time, a steady stream of jeers cut through the clapping.
The level of disgust elevated as the sequence repeated itself. Willingham started for just the seventh time this month. He tweaked an intercostal muscle in late August and then he strained his groin. He has been unable to establish a rhythm. Scherzer picked up on the opportunity. Willingham chased a first-pitch curve and popped it up for Miguel Cabrera in foul territory.
The load transferred to Gordon’s shoulders. Last month, he resembled Atlas, propping up this ballcub. That player has yet to arrive in September. He lugged a .161 batting average this month to the plate with him. Scherzer brushed him aside with a succession of fastballs for another swinging strikeout.
“It’s a tough one, man,” Hosmer said. “When you’ve got Scherzer, a guy like him on the ropes, when you’ve got guys on base, you’ve really got to make the most of it.”