Jarrod Dyson eyed his counterpart warily, swiveling to find him after each pitch. The body of the menace was coated with grayish-brown fur. Its tail was a lighter shade of auburn. The outfield guest belonged to the Scuridae family of rodents, the sort of varmint Dyson encountered during his boyhood in southern Mississippi.
“I grew up killing them, man,” Dyson said after a 4-3 loss Monday to Cleveland. “We used to hunt with BB guns, man. I don’t worry about no squirrel. I ain’t going to let no squirrel make me lose my job.”
The squirrel provided a few innings of levity during an otherwise bland evening for the Royals. It sneaked onto the Progressive Field diamond during batting practice, and ranged through the outfield during the early portion of the evening. On multiple occasions, the overmatched members of the grounds crew attempted to chase it from the field.
Their efforts often looked futile. The squirrel darted between their legs. It disappeared into the Royals’ bullpen only to reappear in the third inning. The paltry crowd of 10,789 roared at its return. By the fifth, the grounds crew had captured it inside the Cleveland bullpen.
“He just wanted to hang around,” designated hitter Billy Butler said. “He didn’t want to leave.”
As reporters began to chuckle, Butler shook his head.
“Around that squirrel,” he reminded, “there was a baseball game.”
Indeed, but the contents of the evening already felt familiar, even this early in the season. Jeremy Guthrie served up a pair of two-run homers, which soured an otherwise useful six innings of work. The defense completed a series of athletic maneuvers behind him as a safety net.
But the offense remains stagnant, and the Royals have now dropped two in a row after peeling off a five-game winning streak last week.
Facing right-hander Zach McAllister, they came up empty except for a three-run rally in the fifth. They could not cash in on a first-inning triple by Omar Infante — Eric Hosmer smoked a line drive at shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera — and the team went hitless during the final four innings.
“It’s imperative (the team hits with runners in scoring position), and it’s not like they’re not trying,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Those are things that hopefully we’ll get better at, when we start swinging the bats.”
The game marked the start of a brief reunion tour for Guthrie. This weekend, he will start in Baltimore, where he resurrected his career. On Monday he appeared in the stadium where his career nearly collapsed.
Cleveland selected Guthrie with the 22nd pick in the 2002 draft, five picks after Cole Hamels and three before Matt Cain. The organization set similar expectations for Guthrie.
“It might have been a slight miscalculation by us on how advanced he was when we drafted him,” said Mark Shapiro, then the Indians general manager, when the club designated him for assignment after the 2006 season.
The Orioles claimed Guthrie off waivers. He has chiseled out a career as a useful back-end starter, one who benefits from the Royals’ nonpareil defense. But there is little defense available when the baseball leaves the ballpark.
As Yost charted Guthrie’s evening, he focused on three mistakes: A hanging change-up to Michael Brantley that became a two-run homer in the third, a hanging curveball to Nick Swisher that became a fifth-inning double and a hanging slider to Jason Kipnis that became the game-winning, two-run homer for Cleveland in the fifth.
“They got a lot of hits,” Guthrie said after allowing 10 hits. “They drove the ball. I felt really good, I felt like I commanded the ball. But they still got a bunch of hits.”
The Royals were less fortunate. Their offense continues to struggle. Hosmer isn’t hitting for power. Salvador Perez is batting just .227; Mike Moustakas is still hitting only .133. They manufactured a rally on Monday thanks to a pair of defensive misplays by the Indians and an RBI single from Omar Infante to score Dyson.
In time, Yost believes, his group will find their groove. He maintains his patience — and his sense of humor.
A reporter asked if Yost, a dedicated hunter, could have done in the squirrel with a gun.
“If I had my bow,” he said, “I could have got him.”
The room tittered with laughter.
“They could have got him for trespassing, because I doubt he bought a ticket,” Yost said. “That’s the first time I’ve seen a spectator run on the field and they didn’t tackle him and arrest him.”