It’s not the end, of course. The Royals have 36 games remaining, but the road to postseason now seems staggeringly steep after Thursday’s crushing 4-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox in 12 innings at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals built a three-run lead for their ace, James Shields, in an effort to halt a four-game skid and prevent suffering a three-game sweep, at home, to the division’s last-place club.
And Shields couldn’t hold it.
The White Sox pulled even against Shields before plating the winning run on Conor Gillaspie’s leadoff homer in the 12th against Luke Hochevar, who could be seen shouting into his glove as the inning ended.
“That’s definitely not the result you want,” he said. “I was up (0-1) in the count, and I tried to go curveball down in the zone. Get a rollover. He went down and got it and put a good swing on it. Nothing you can really do.”
Gillaspie drove the pitch to right, just beyond a leaping Justin Maxwell. Addison Reed closed out a victory for Jacob Petricka, 1-0, in his big-league debut.
“(Hochevar’s) got good stuff,” Gillaspie said, “but I got a good piece of one tonight. He’s not an easy guy to face. I wasn’t sure it got over, but as soon as I rounded second I saw Joe (McEwing) kept waving me.”
Hochevar, 3-2, was the loser.
Petricka entered the game with one out in the 11th with runners at first and second. He got the game to the 12th by getting Salvy Perez to ground into a double play.
“You don’t have time to think when you’ve got the game-winning run at second,” Petricka said. “You’ve just got to throw strikes and do your stuff.”
The Royals made it interesting against Reed when Butler led off the 12th with a walk, and pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson stole second with no out.
Reed then struck out pinch-hitter David Lough before Chris Getz lined out to short. Emilio Bonifacio ended the game by flying out to center. Reed saved all three games in the sweep and has 34 saves in 39 chances.
The loss dropped the Royals to 64-62, and pushed them to seven games behind idle Oakland for the final American League wild-card spot — with three other clubs in-between.
“We’d better (have another good run left), or else it’s going to be a long last month,” left fielder Alex Gordon said. “Hopefully, we can start playing a little bit better and start making up some ground.”
This was a dreadful loss, particularly since the Royals built that three-run lead and then appeared to benefit from two suspect calls at first base.
Jamey Carroll started the Royals’ 11th with a leadoff walk against David Purcey, the fifth Chicago pitcher. Purcey then hit Gordon with a 1-0 fastball, which moved Carroll to second with no outs.
Eric Hosmer hit a soft fly to center for the first out before the White Sox called on Petricka.
All of that came after the Royals caught a break to start the Chicago 10th inning after Alejandro De Aza’s swinging third strike got past Perez. De Aza sprinted to first and appeared to beat Perez’s throw.
Umpire D.J. Reyburn saw it differently and called De Aza out.
The White Sox can be forgiven for believing they’d been hard done by Reyburn. Their ninth inning had ended on a similar play.
Josh Phegley reached second base when his sharp two-out grounder ate up third baseman Mike Moustakas for a two-base error. Jordan Danks followed by lining a ball off Greg Holland’s thigh that caromed back toward home.
Perez jumped on the ball and threw out Danks at first — in Reyburn’s view. Replays suggested Danks beat the throw, too.
None of it helped in the end.
“They’re grown men,” manager Ned Yost said. “They’ve got to pull themselves back in. It’s time. We’re going to have to find a way to get out of this, and get out of it real quick.”
Shields and Chicago lefty Jose Quintana worked a scoreless game into the fifth inning before the Royals struck for three runs on an RBI single from Bonifacio and two sacrifice flies.
But Shields gave up two runs in the sixth and one in the seventh, which stuck him with a no-decision when Kelvin Herrera took over to start the eighth inning.
Alexei Ramirez pulled Herrera’s third pitch into left, a sinking liner that resulted in an out when Gordon made a spectacular diving catch. If the ball gets by Gordon, it’s a likely triple. Maybe more.
It only delayed the disappointment.
Matt Lindstrom replaced Quintana to start the Royals’ eighth. Quintana permitted three runs and four hits with one walk and seven strikeouts. Shields gave up three runs on nine hits with no walks and eight strikeouts.
The Royals, after building their 3-0 edge, still led 3-2 in the seventh when Gillaspie led off with a single into center against Shields.
A wild pitch moved Gillaspie to second before Josh Phegley’s grounder to first struck the base and caromed into right for an RBI double. Boy, doesn’t that sum up the last 10 days?
Tie game — which Shields preserved by retiring the next three hitters.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating,” he said. “You never want to get swept. … You just keep grinding it out. One thing we haven’t done all season long is we haven’t quit at all. We’re going to keep grinding it out.
“We’ve just got to come up with some wins here soon.”