It wasn’t rookie right-hander Yordano Ventura who wilted Tuesday in the heat of the postseason chase. It was two of the Royals’ seasonlong strengths: Their bullpen and their defense.
The result was a costly 5-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium; the kind of loss that just can’t happen for a club looking to overtake four other clubs in the season’s final two weeks.
“We had some tough plays,” left fielder Alex Gordon said, “but we’ve been (winning on defense) all year. A hiccup here is not going to slow us down. We’re going to come back tomorrow and do pitching and defense.”
That’s not unlikely. The Royals have been resilient all season in bouncing back from tough losses, but this loss dropped them to 79-72 and left them 3 1/2 games behind Texas and Tampa Bay in the wild-card race.
And to get there, they must also get past Baltimore and Cleveland.
“You look at that game, and their bullpen pitched better than our bullpen,” manager Ned Yost said. “We feel we had the right match-ups, and we just didn’t get it done.
“There were (also) a number of plays that we normally make. The degree of difficulty on all of those plays was still very high and very tough, but we’ve got a very talented defense. Normally, we do make those plays.”
The Royals built a 3-0 lead behind Ventura, who flashed electric form in his major-league debut before departing with two outs in the sixth inning to a standing ovation from the crowd of 21,685.
“It was very nice,” he said. “Salvador (Perez), when he went to the mound, told me if they give me a standing ovation to tip my hat in appreciation for that.”
Cleveland got its only run against Ventura on Michael Brantley’s two-out RBI single in the sixth after the Royals failed to make two plays that would have ended the inning.
Kelvin Herrera blew a 3-1 lead in the seventh by hitting a batter before yielding a booming triple to Michael Bourn and a loud sacrifice fly to Nick Swisher.
“Their kid (Ventura) was running it up there a hundred,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Then he started flipping that breaking ball over for strike one, and they were in command of that game.
“Then Bourny hit that ball in the gap, and all of a sudden he’s at third and Swish doesn’t try to do too much with a 3-0 pitch. Even though we’re on the road, we’re tied. It’s a heck of a lot better than being down 3-1.”
It was still 3-3 when Wade Davis started the Cleveland eighth by walking Carlos Santana, who exited for pinch-runner Drew Stubbs.
Brantley then hit a potential double-play grounder to first, but Eric Hosmer bobbled the ball and settled for an out at first.
Stubbs went to second and scored easily when Gordon, a two-time Gold Glove winner, failed to handle Asdrubal Cabrera’s drive to deep left. The ball got past Gordon for an RBI double.
“It’s a ball I definitely need to catch,” he said. “I made a play for it, but it just hit off my glove. I should have caught it. I’m not going to try to make an excuse on what happened. I should have caught it.”
Cleveland led 4-3 and got a leadoff homer from Bourn in the ninth against Luke Hochevar.
In contrast, the Indians got 41/3 scoreless innings from a relay of six relievers in closing out the victory. Cody Allen, 6-1, was the winner. Chris Perez worked the ninth for his 25th save. Davis, 7-11, was the loser.
It was a galling giveaway after Ventura worked five scoreless innings in his big-league debut before his defense betrayed him in the sixth. He allowed five hits, struck out three and walked two.
Ventura started his big-league career with a four-pitch walk to Bourn but got a double-play grounder by Swisher before striking out Jason Kipnis on an 84-mph curve.
An 11-pitch first inning that generated his first standing ovation.
“Everyone knows I was nervous until I threw a first strike,” Ventura said. “But thank God I was able to make adjustments and get the next guy out.”
The Royals struck for one run later in the inning after Bonifacio drew a one-out walk. Hosmer followed with a drive into the left-center gap that Bourn couldn’t quite get.
The result was an RBI double and a 1-0 lead.
Bonifacio also ignited a two-run third inning by reaching on a one-out single when his sharp grounder went through third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall.
Bonifacio stole second before Indians starter Corey Kluber loaded the bases by walking Hosmer and Billy Butler. Perez’s sacrifice fly scored Bonifacio, and Mike Moustakas followed with an RBI double.
Kluber gave up three runs and six hits before exiting with two outs in the fifth with a runner on first. Rich Hill started the bullpen parade, followed by Bryan Shaw, Mark Rzepcynski, Allen, Joe Smith and Perez.
The Indians didn’t get two runners on base against Ventura in any inning until the sixth, when Lough broke late on Santana’s two-out drive to right field.
“It was Santana who hit it,” Lough said, “and with those balls, you never know. The wind was blowing in, and I did everything I could to try to dive in front of it. I knew I wasn’t going to get there, so I knocked it down.”
The ball fell for a single that moved Swisher to third — and Swisher had reached on a single that Bonifacio had a chance to make a play on. So Ventura should have been out of the inning before Brantley’s single.
Yost went to the bullpen at that point for Will Smith with the tying runs on base to face Cabrera, who had hit the ball hard twice against Ventura.
Smith walked Cabrera, which loaded the bases and led to another pitching change: Louis Coleman to face Ryan Raburn. That worked better; Coleman struck out Raburn on a nasty full-count slider.
The Royals then threw away Ventura’s crowd-pleasing effort when Herrera surrendered a 3-1 lead in the seventh after hitting Yan Gomes with one out.
Bourn followed with an RBI triple into the right-center gap before Swisher tied the game with a sacrifice fly to deep left field.
“I put a guy on base for free,” Herrera said. “That’s my fault. I tried to throw the breaking ball for a strike, and it got away. That was a bad pitch (to Bourn). I tried to throw inside, but my fastball ran back over the plate.
“That happens in baseball.”
It just stings more in a postseason chase.