A two-month string of brilliance ended with a thud, a wince and a howl in a 5-4 Royals loss.
The thud occurred when a 93-mph cutter collided with the back of a batter’s left arm. The wince belonged to Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who absorbed the blow as he plated the decisive run. The howl emanated from the mouth of Royals reliever Wade Davis, who had unleashed the misplaced pitch in the eighth inning of a tie game and in turn allowed his first run since April 23.
“That’s a tough way to go down right there,” Davis said. “A hit by pitch with the bases loaded.”
Before Wednesday, Davis had completed 20 appearances without wavering. He gave up only seven hits during the subsequent 22 1/3 innings. In the eighth inning on Wednesday, the Dodgers clapped a pair of singles off him. With two out, Davis walked utility man Scott Van Slyke. When he lost the handle against Ellis, part of a misguided attempt to make what he called “the perfect pitch,” the Royals fell behind and dropped this rare series against the Dodgers.
The final moments only increased the sting of the team’s sixth loss in seven games. In the ninth inning, Pedro Ciriaco stole second base as a pinch runner. Lorenzo Cain thought he had tied the game when he ripped a liner off Los Angeles reliever Brian Wilson. Cain could only watch as 6-5 first baseman Scott Van Slyke caught the ball in the top of his glove, “pulled a snow-cone on me,” Cain said, and threw out Ciriaco at second.
“The rule is always you freeze on a line drive,” manager Ned Yost said. “But the situation, amped up to score the winning run, he just got too far off (the bag).”
Instead of the tying run, Ciriaco made the final out. The Royals suffered defeat despite weathering yet another rocky unsteady outing from James Shields. He finished seven innings, but surrendered four runs in the process. His ERA increased to 3.79, the worst in the team’s rotation.
The irony of the situation pains the organization. Two winters ago, the Royals acquired Shields to instill competence, competitiveness and cohesion to their pitching staff. In his second season in Kansas City, Shields have devolved into the club’s least-reliable starter this month.
As they have so often in recent weeks, his teammates bailed him out to avoid hanging a loss on his resume. Lorenzo Cain mashed the team’s first leadoff home run this season, and Jarrod Dyson added his first homer since last June. Dyson launched his shot in the fifth inning, when the Royals erased a two-run deficit to tie the game. They booted Dan Haren from the mound in the process.
On Wednesday, the team received something of a reprieve. Haren is a three-time All Star, and still regarded as a capable starter. But he resides on a plane beneath Clayton Kershaw, who tormented his hosts the night before.
Kershaw blanked the Royals for eight innings. Haren’s shutout did not even last one at-bat. He fed Cain an 89-mph fastball at the belt. Cain thumped his third homer this season.
The lead was short-lived. In the second inning’s first at-bat, Matt Kemp boomed a solo home run, the 11th Shields had allowed in his last 11 starts.
After a superlative April, Shields has teetered for much of this season. Heading into Wednesday, opposing hitters posted an .872 on-base plus slugging percentage against him in previous 10 starts. To contextualize that statistic: Alex Gordon entered Wednesday with a team-best .818 OPS.
Shields is 32, and has logged at least 200 innings in seven consecutive seasons, and accumulated at least 215 in six of those. Even if his fastball velocity still clocks in its usual register, the receipt for all those innings can be found in his wayward command, rival talent evaluators explained.
“Sometimes that workload catches up to guys even if it doesn’t show up in velo,” one American League scout said.
He also has been imminently hittable. He yielded a pair of extra-base knocks in the third. Dee Gordon raked the first, a one-out triple on a fastball down the middle. What followed infuriated the pitcher. When Shields attempted to pick off Gordon, crew chief Hunter Wendelstendt called him for a balk for stepping toward home plate.
Gordon scored, and Shields looked apoplectic. The umpires made a similar ruling in an identical situation on June 15 in Chicago. Shields continues to contest the calls, and Yost indicated he planned to send footage to MLB’s office seeking clarification. In the interim, Shields must mothball his maneuver.
“I don’t know what else to do, to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s a clean move straight to third. I did not deceive him toward home plate.”
Yost talked his way into an ejection that day against the White Sox. This time, he watched from the dugout as Shields served up a triple to Yasiel Puig.
Puig, the 23-year-old Cuban, may be the game’s most compelling player. He displayed his talent in one 270-foot sprint. The baseball nestled into the left-field corner, and its slow carom off the wall cost Alex Gordon. Puig chugged around second base with little regard for Gordon’s Gold-Glove certified arm, and crashed head-first into the bag. He scored on a sacrifice fly soon after.
Puig would punish Shields again in the fifth. The Royals rose up and tied the game in the bottom of the frame. The two clubs traded zeros until the eighth, when Davis entered the game.
For a team trending downward, the outcome felt familiar, even if the circumstances leading up to this loss were unique.
“They all sting,” Yost said. “Some a little bit worse than others. But they all sting.”
To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/McCulloughStar.