It isn’t over yet for the Royals. Not officially. But Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to the Seattle Mariners put them on the brink when parlayed with events elsewhere earlier in the evening.
Justin Smoak delivered the knockout blow with a three-run homer in the fifth inning against Bruce Chen after the Mariners mounted a two-out rally on a double and a walk.
The moment provided its own metaphor.
Kendrys Morales lined a double to deep center that ticked off the glove of a retreating Lorenzo Cain just as the roof at Safeco Field began to close while a light mist shrouded the park.
“Should have caught it,” Cain said. “It hit my glove. If it hits my glove, I should catch it. I didn’t, and it cost us three runs.”
Chen then walked Franklin Gutierrez before Smoak unloaded on an 0-2 fastball. That was it, really.
“I tried to go up with a fastball,” Chen said, “and he made good contact. I was ahead in the count. It wasn’t a pitch right down the middle. It’s wasn’t a strike. I tried to go up the ladder and get him to chase it.”
Smoak chased it 389 feet, a no-doubter over the left-field wall.
“We were having trouble getting on top of that pitch,” Seattle manager Eric Wedge said, “then Smoaky got it. He hit that about as good as you can hit a ball. That was probably the best ball he’s hit right-handed all year.”
A one-run lead turned into 4-0, which proved insurmountable because the Royals never solved Seattle rookie left-hander James Paxton, who is 3-0 after four big-league starts.
Paxton yielded just four hits over seven dominant innings while striking out 10 and walking none. He retired 16 of his last 17 batters before, with his pitch count at 97, the Mariners went to the bullpen.
“He was strong throughout,” Wedge said, “all the way to the last pitch. Commanded the ballgame.”
Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar each worked one inning in closing out what, for the Royals, looms as a bell-tolling loss.
Chris Dwyer made his big-league debut by replacing Chen to start the sixth and showed some chops by pitching out of a second-and-third jam with no outs. Dwyer escaped by striking out two and inducing a pop-up.
Dwyer also worked a scoreless seventh — two scoreless innings, a nice footnote — before Kelvin Herrera pitched the eighth.
Not much else went right. It was, roughly, 2 1/2 hours filled with bad news on all fronts.
The game had barely started when the scoreboard showed Cleveland had rallied for a 5-4 victory over Chicago. It didn’t reveal that Jason Giambi hit a two-out, two-run homer in the ninth but, really the details weren’t important.
Soon thereafter, Tampa Bay completed a 7-0 rout of New York and, roughly an hour later, showed Texas beat Houston 3-2.
The sum result, with five games remaining, is the Royals, 83-74, now trail Tampa Bay, 88-69, by five games for the first of the American League’s two wild-card berths.
The Royals are also four games behind Cleveland, 87-70, for the second slot and must get past Texas, 86-71, to catch either the Rays or Indians.
“We’ve put ourselves in this situation,” left fielder Alex Gordon said. “It’s tough. But if you’re not out of it, you’re not out of it.”
Chen, 8-4, quickly found trouble when Brad Miller and Abraham Almonte opened the Seattle first with singles. Kyle Seager flied to center, but Morales pulled an RBI single through the left side.
Gordon’s Gordon got past catcher Salvy Perez for an error that permitted Almonte to advance from second to third. But Chen stranded runners at first and third by retiring the next two hitters.
The Royals got a two-out double in the second from Cain, but Paxton struck out Mike Moustakas on three pitches.
Chen worked out of a two-out jam in the third by striking out Franklin Gutierrez after Seager walked and went to third on Morales’ hit-and-run single.
The Mariners stirred again in the fourth when Smoak led off with a walk, and Michael Saunders followed with a single past Moustakas at third. Chen stranded both by retiring the next three hitters.
Chen’s escapability ended in the fifth just as the roof started closing. Morales doubled, Gutierrez walked on four pitches and, on 0-2, Smoak went up and out for a 4-0 lead.
That looked huge for Paxton.
“That kid today was so good,” shortstop Alcides Escobar said. “That’s a tough game. We’re in tough spot right now. All we can do is continue to play hard (Wednesday) and for the next four games (in Chicago).”