The picture felt familiar, because it was: A dejected reliever, a resolute but weary manager and another walk-off Royals loss to the Tigers, a 2-1 defeat in 10 innings at Comerica Park.
The reliever this time was Tim Collins. He served up a run-scoring single to Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler. Once more the Tigers massed inside the diamond as the Royals dropped their second consecutive game to start the season.
In the process, the team wasted a seven-inning gem from new addition Jason Vargas. They flubbed their two chances to dust up reigning American League Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer. They staged a ninth-inning rally off six-time All Star closer Joe Nathan, only to watch Collins crumble without his command in the next frame.
“I couldn’t find the plate today,” Collins said, and the results showed: He issued a leadoff walk, and then another free pass two batters later. Kinsler thumped a flat, elevated changeup to end the proceedings.
The final moments hurt, and this team’s bullpen, so superlative in 2013, has not begun this season with promise. But the game featured a variety of smaller regrets. A pair of instant replay calls went against the Royals: One extended a Tigers rally, the other ended a Royals rally. The lineup notched just one extra-base hit, and failed to deliver during their limited opportunities.
Their only run came on Alex Gordon’s sacrifice fly with the bases loaded in the ninth. In the latter innings, Yost emptied his bench in search of upgrades. He utilized a bevy of pinch-runners.
But it was a decision to stand pat that invited questioning. In the eighth, catcher Salvador Perez roped a leadoff double. Yost removed him for speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson.
The table was set. But Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain struck out. Yost allowed shortstop Alcides Escobar to bat. The at-bat appeared a mismatch: Scherzer was the American League’s best pitcher in 2013; Escobar ranked last among hitters qualified for the batting title with a .559 on-base plus slugging percentage.
But Yost declined to insert outfielder Justin Maxwell in Escobar’s place. The season is too young, he explained, and the team hopes Escobar can rebound from last season’s performance.
“Pinch-hitting for guys gets in their dome,” Yost said. “And you don’t want to get in their dome in the second game. When nobody is really swinging the bat good.”
Escobar did make contact — a flyball to right that ended the threat.
The team had gone seven innings without touching Scherzer. Their best prior opportunity occurred in the first. Scherzer lacked command at the outset, and placed runners at the corners with one out. Up came Billy Butler.
Scherzer remained inexact. His first three pitches veered outside the zone. At 3-0, the dugout allowed Butler to swing away. The result was both predictable and painful. A year ago, Butler led the majors by grounding into 28 double plays. This was his first in 2014.
“I’m not mad at myself for swinging at it,” Butler said. “I got the green light. I got a good pitch to hit. I just had a bad result.”
Scherzer rolled from there. A Royal did not reach second base until Perez’s eighth-inning double.
“We let him settle in,” Butler said. “And that’s what happens when you let good pitchers settle in.”
Yet the game remained close thanks to Vargas. In his first start as a Royal, he suffered a lone, one-pitch lapse. He limited Detroit to five hits. He struck out six.
After three no-hit innings, Vargas flipped a curveball over the plate to begin the fourth against Kinsler. The ball splashed into the Royals bullpen in left-center.
The sixth inning provided Vargas with both the day’s most treacherous jam and his finest hour. He allowed a pair of singles to open the frame. When he induced a groundball from rookie outfielder Tyler Collins, he appeared to have a double play in hand.
But Detroit manager Brad Ausmus challenged the call. A three-minute delay ensued before Collins was ruled safe. The interlude added to the tension as Vargas squared off with the reigning two-time American League MVP, Miguel Cabrera. “I knew that one run could have been the difference in that game,” Vargas said.
Vargas had displayed little fear against Cabrera in their first encounter; he froze him with an 88-mph fastball at the thighs for a first-inning strikeout. This time, Cabrera could only tap a grounder back to third base, where Mike Moustakas threw out Kinsler at the plate. When Vargas pumped another high fastball past designated hitter Victor Martinez, the inning was over.
Vargas’ teammates could not build on his performance. To arrest the early-season streak, the team will turn to rookie Yordano Ventura, the 22-year-old kid the team calls “Ace.” He faces Anibal Sanchez on Thursday afternoon.
“Definitely don’t want to get walked off both times,” Vargas said. “Or lose, in general. But we’ll come out tomorrow, watch Ace pitch and hopefully we can walk out of here, 1-2.”