It’s like this for the Royals as the season winds down. They have almost no margin for error in what already loomed as a long-shot quest to reach the postseason for the first time in 28 years.
So Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Texas Rangers on Fan Appreciation Night at Kauffman Stadium effectively turned a long shot into a Hail Mary. Not impossible. Just not … well, a lot of things have to go right.
That sure didn’t happen in Texas’ two-run third inning.
Adrian Beltre’s hopper back up the middle was a potential inning-ending double play, but it got past pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, struck the base and scooted past second baseman Emilio Bonifacio.
That cost the Royals two runs.
“I probably should have caught it anyway,” Bonifacio said, “but it hit the base and stayed down. If it doesn’t hit the base, it’s a double play. Easy double play. If we get that double play, maybe we’re still playing.”
Instead, the single scored one run, set up another on a sacrifice fly by A.J. Pierzynski and extended a 1-0 lead to 3-0. That was plenty for Texas right-hander Matt Garza, who showed no signs of his recent struggles.
“His breaking ball was outstanding,” Texas manager Ron Washington said. “He was able to spot his fastball around the zone. He was able to keep some good, young hitters off-balance.”
Garza, 4-5, carried a four-hit shutout into the ninth before exiting after Eric Hosmer’s leadoff homer.
“They were taking early swings,” Garza said, “and they weren’t catching good wood until the ninth inning on my fastball. The balls they did hit were off-speed pitches.
“Left a fastball up to Hosmer, and it was impressive. He went opposite field — just a strong kid.”
Joe Nathan replaced Garza at that point, and Nathan, a long-time Royals’ nemesis while pitching for Minnesota, retired the next three hitters for his 40th save in 43 chances.
It was Nathan’s 41st career save against the Royals, the most by any opponent in franchise history.
Not what the sellout crowd of 36,575 had hoped to see.
The loss officially eliminated the Royals from the possibility of winning the American League Central. So their only route now to the postseason is through a wild-card slot.
Here’s the relevant math: The Royals, at 81-73 with eight games left, trail Cleveland by 3 1/2 games for the final wild-card berth with eight games to go.
The Indians have seven games left, all against clubs with losing records, and they are a major-league-best 48-18 this season against such clubs.
And to catch Cleveland, the Royals must first overtake New York and Texas while staying level (or better) with Baltimore. It’s genie-in-a-bottle time.
“We know we can’t do anything unless we win,” Hosmer said. “That’s what we want to focus on, just winning. We’re still in it. We’re not out of it. There are crazier things that have happened.”
The Rangers, who trail Cleveland by one-half game, didn’t do a lot against Guthrie, 14-12, but they did enough: three runs in six innings.
“Beltre caught a break up the middle,” Washington said. “Ball hit the bag — been awhile since we’ve had something like that happened. We were able to hold on, and Garza did the rest. And Joe came in and was outstanding.”
Ian Kinsler opened the game with a triple into the right-center gap. That turned into a run when Elvis Andrus, with the infield playing back, grounded out to short.
“It was down (to Kinsler),” Guthrie said. “I mean, shoot, not many guys slice it into the gap for a triple. Maybe a base-hit up the middle or something. It put them in a perfect position to get the early lead.”
The Rangers got their other runs after Guthrie issued one-out walks to Andrus and Alex Rios in the third inning before Beltre hit his hopper up the middle.
“I just missed it,” Guthrie said. “It was to my left, just down underneath my glove. Kind of a change-up. I thought it was hit harder than it was. We had two guys have a chance to make a play, and neither of us were able to do it.”
Andrus scored, and Rios went to third. Pierzynski followed with a sacrifice fly. Garza took it from there and showed none of his recent struggles: losses in his previous three starts while allowing 14 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings.
“It was just the wrong time to run into him on a good day,” Hosmer said. “He was attacking guys. Especially with A.J. (Pierzynski) back there. A.J. knows us real well from (his time in) Chicago.”
And that one grounder. The double play that wasn’t. A three-run climb instead of a one-run hole.
“That ball doesn’t hit the back of the bag,” manager Ned Yost said, “we’re still playing. Fate got us there. Something got us. It wasn’t luck.”
Now, luck might be the Royals’ only hope.