His shirt was untucked and his face was red. Ned Yost walked through the Royals clubhouse at a measured pace. In the minutes after a 4-3 Opening Day loss to Detroit, he leaned back in a chair inside the visitors’ office in Comerica Park and started to decompress.
A post-mortem on Monday would be frustrating. Yost dislikes the pomp and pageantry of Opening Day. On Monday, the result of the actual baseball game stung, too. The Tigers formed a mob near the mound after new shortstop Alex Gonzalez rifled a walkoff single off closer Greg Holland, the last reliever to falter on a day for bullpen futility.
The Royals blew a two-run lead and failed to capitalize a wobbly version of Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Their relievers malfunctioned, and Yost invited questions about his deployment of them. Save for Salvador Perez, who went four for four, the lineup went three for 31. And they will begin 2014 as they ended 2013, looking up at Detroit in the American League Central Division standings.
“That’s a tough loss,” Royals starter James Shields said. “Definitely a tough loss. Not the way we wanted to start our season off.”
The last reliever bore the least of the weight. Aaron Crow allowed a pair of inherited runners to score in the seventh, which wrecked an otherwise stalwart day from Shields. Holland entered with one out in the ninth, and runners at the corners. He failed to clean up a mess created by Wade Davis, who was working his second inning of the afternoon.
This bullpen dominated in 2013, and posted a 2.55 ERA that was the American League’s best. That production is difficult to replicate. The team’s first foray did not go well. “Today was a rare day where we gave up the lead, and couldn’t hold the tie,” Davis said.
As the ninth began, Yost considered two choices: Davis or Kelvin Herrera. He did not want to use his closer on the road in a tie game. He aligns with most of baseball’s orthodoxy in this sense.
But after Davis walked catcher Alex Avila, a tense encounter with a few close pitches just outside the strike zone, and gave up a single to rookie Nick Castellanos, Yost felt compelled to reconsider his position on utilizing Holland.
“I’m not going to start him in the ninth in a tie ballgame,” Yost said. “But the game was on the line right there. I wanted to put my best pitcher in there, at that time, to try to get us to the top of the 10th.”
Holland fell behind Gonzalez, 2-0. He tried to sneak a 2-1 slider past him. Gonzalez rifled it to left, past the outstretched arm of shortstop Alcides Escobar.
Holland downplayed the suggestion he preferred to perform in a clean inning.
“I don’t care,” Holland said.
Just a few innings prior, it appeared Holland would have a save opportunity at his hands. The Royals led 3-1 after a fourth-inning blitz of Verlander. The team taxed him for 33 pitches. Perez ripped an RBI double. Lorenzo Cain threaded a groundball single for another run. Omar Infante walked with the bases loaded.
An opportunity arose for Eric Hosmer. But Verlander bested him with the bases loaded. Hosmer popped up a 98-mph fastball near the hands for the third out.
“Yeah, of course I want to score 10,” Yost said. “But you’d take three. That’s a nice inning right there.”
It fell to Shields to protect the advantage. He held the line into the seventh. Then Austin Jackson raked a 91-mph fastball at the knees, “exactly where I wanted to pitch,” Shields said, for a triple. Avila worked a walk to chase Shields.
Yost called upon Crow. With two strikes on Castellanos, Perez called for a third-consecutive slider and set up down and away. Crow was less exact in his preparation. He merely wanted to throw a pitch down in the zone. The resulting pitch was fearsome, but hard to tame, as it veered toward the other side of the plate.
“That’s one of the toughest balls to block, a backed up slider,” Yost said.
Castellanos swung and missed, yet the damage had yet to be inflicted. Perez slid to his left, but not in time to block the baseball. The movement put tremendous strain on him.
“I think it’s hard because I had to go my left side,” Perez said. “It’s more easier to go to my right side."
Crow felt content with the pitch. He did, after all, strike out Castellanos. But the result still frustrated.
“Salvy’s got a real hard job back there,” Crow said. “He’s not going to block every pitch.”
Two pitches later, Crow hung a slider to Gonzalez. He ripped an RBI triple. The offense had gone cold — after the fourth-inning rally, they managed only a trio of singles.
So the stage was set for the ninth inning, for Davis’ stumble, Holland’s four-pitch evening and the Tigers’ triumph. A guard cannot change in one game, not in a season of 162, but the Royals squandered a chance to assert themselves on Monday.
“I’m always glad when it’s over with,” Yost said before the game about Opening Day, and after nine innings on Monday, that point was only reinforced.