The would-be savior celebrated his 37th birthday nine days ago. Bruce Chen is the eldest member of the Royals, and his role lacks significance. He is the long reliever, a pitcher deemed unfit of the five-man starting rotation and a spectator during the high-leverage relief frames handled by his younger teammates.
In Saturday’s 6-2 loss to the Angels, Chen demonstrated why he has become marginalized on this roster and why he can still offer some value. He is here to handle emergencies, and one arose after four innings. A healthy storm soaked the diamond, chased Yordano Ventura from the diamond and caused this game to end nearly seven hours after it began.
“It’s tough, but that’s the job that the long guy has to do,” Chen said. “You never know when you’re going to be called upon, and you never know how long its going to be.”
After a delay that lasted three hours and 58 minutes, Chen inherited a two-run deficit. In one afternoon, it was possible for Chen to provide stability in a disjointed game, soak up innings for his fellow relievers and perhaps even collect the elusive 82nd victory in his career, which would tie him with future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera for the most ever by a Panamanian.
He completed the first two tasks. Chen lasted the final five innings and struck out eight. But a four-run frame in the sixth sunk his team. The Royals, 41-39, nabbed a pair of runs against Angels reliever Mike Morin in the bottom of the frame, but the lineup shut down afterward, and Chen took the loss in his first big-league outing after spending two months on the disabled list.
“His job is to hold down the fort and let us climb back into the game,” manager Ned Yost said. “And he did it, four out of the five innings. The sixth inning just kind of got away from him.”
The weather thinned an announced crowd of 21,093 into the hundreds. The final five innings thus unfolded before an intimate audience. The setting resembled a mid-March afternoon at the team’s complex in Surprise, Ariz. Only the diehards remained.
The offense offered little resistance at the hands of the Los Angeles pitchers. Hector Santiago blanked them for four innings before the storm arrived. The rain prevented Santiago from improving his 0-7 record, but his bullpen protected the team’s victory.
A downpour overtook the stadium in the bottom of the first inning. It was a temporary summer squall, but the umpires could not determine how long it would last. Ventura left the dugout, and watched as the grounds crew unfurled the tarp. He stood amid the sheets of rain during all seven minutes of the delay.
A more debilitating case of bad luck struck in the third. Ventura gave up a two-out double to outfielder Kole Calhoun. Mike Trout chopped a slow roller to third base, and beat backup infielder Danny Valencia’s throw to first. Two pitches later, Albert Pujols floated a 99-mph fastball just out of Omar Infante’s reach. The ball splashed into the outfield for an RBI single.
The Angels created a more conventional run in the fourth. Howie Kendrick dug out a knee-high curveball and doubled into the left-field corner. He took third when C.J. Cron singled, and scored when David Freese cracked a single off a lifeless change-up.
The lightning flashed as Valencia came to the plate with two outs in the fourth. Alex Gordon stood on second base, and Valencia had a chance to dent Angels starter Santiago. He fouled off three pitches before flying out to right field. It was an eight-pitch encounter, and the last act of baseball this ballpark would witness for nearly four hours.
The Royals were not interested in a doubleheader today. So they opted to wait. In the interim, the players shuffled cards and played video games. They watched the other games around the country on clubhouse televisions.
“It’s a waiting game,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
At 6:03 p.m., Chen emerged from the Royals dugout. Pitching coach Dave Eiland accompanied him to the bullpen. Chen had not pitched in a big-league game since April 24, when he aggravated a bulging disk in his lower back. Ten days ago he completed a rehab stint with Class AAA Omaha, and idled after rejoining the big-league roster last Tuesday.
Chen carted a 7.45 ERA with him to the mound. The Angels inflated that number in the sixth. After a leadoff single by Erick Aybar and a walk to Kendrick, the duo executed a double steal. Freese roped a two-run single up the middle. On the muddy track, he managed to steal second base.
“I made a couple of bad pitches,” Chen said. “I left some pitches up.”
The theft placed Freese in an ideal position for what followed. Calhoun dumped a slider into left. Freese hesitated for a moment, but decided to challenge the vaunted arm of Alex Gordon with two outs. The throw skipped home, and Freese appeared to be caught. Except Salvador Perez couldn’t corral the ball.
Chen still couldn’t collect the third out on his own. Two batters later, Pujols plated Calhoun with a single, but the inning ended when Lorenzo Cain threw out Trout at third. The Royals staged a minor rally in the bottom of the frame, then drifted toward the end.
“Really, the second half of that game, besides that inning, went pretty quick,” Hosmer said. “Just a weird day, in general.”