His knees caked in dirt and his face shining with perspiration, Billy Butler made the universal sign for “safe.”
He had just been cut down at third base attempting to advance from first. The call on the field was wrong, Butler communicated to the Royals dugout in the fifth inning of a 7-3 loss to the Indians on Saturday, and replay would vindicate him.
Royals manager Ned Yost caught the signal. He took a few steps onto the diamond, turned to bench coach Don Wakamatsu and waited for word from the team’s video room.
After a few moments, Yost received the verdict. The call on the field was accurate, and Yost returned to his post.
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Butler looked perplexed. Already he had found himself demoted in the lineup due to a brief slump. Now he gathered himself and made the lonely walk back to the dugout.
His lack of speed hampered the team’s chances at a rally in that inning. An inning later, he struck out with runners at the corners as the team attempted to climb back into the game. He stranded two more runners in the eighth.
The slip to the sixth spot in the batting order frustrated Butler, but he appeared resigned to his fate.
“Somebody’s got to be that guy, and it’s sending a message to the rest of the guys,” Butler said. “I can take it. I guess I’m a mentally tough guy. He could do it to somebody else, but I think he knows how I’ll take it.”
The Royals, 45-41, needed the offensive help it could get Saturday. Jeremy Guthrie came up with his weakest performance since a seven-run implosion in Seattle on May 11. This time, he departed with no outs in the fifth and yielded six runs. He recorded 12 outs and allowed 13 men on base.
The onslaught proved too sizable for the Royals to match.
Lorenzo Cain opened the game for the Royals with a double, swiped third against catcher and former teammate George Kottaras and scored on Eric Hosmer’s grounder. From there, the offense got quiet, save for a squashed rally in the sixth and Danny Valencia’s solo homer in the seventh.
A last-ditch rally in the ninth fell short when Cain struck out with the bases loaded and Hosmer grounded into a game-ending double play.
“We had them in a spot where we were going to make it real interesting,” Yost said. “It just fizzled out.”
The Indians dogged Guthrie at the start, forcing him to throw 43 pitches in the first two innings, and victimized him with a three-run spurt in the third. In the aftermath, Yost blamed Guthrie’s location within the strike zone. Guthrie cited poor luck.
“They just kept kind of hitting it where we weren’t,” Guthrie said. “It just kept piling up.”
After Butler’s base-running blunder in the top of the fifth, Guthrie combusted in the bottom of the inning. Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis ripped singles. Up 1-2 on Lonnie Chisenhall, Guthrie missed the upper outside corner of the plate on three consecutive pitches.
The walk loaded the bases. Nick Swisher cleared some traffic with a two-run single. He also booted Guthrie from the game, assuring him of his shortest outing in 2014.
The offense could not bridge the gap.
Butler did get a pair of singles against left-hander T.J. House, which should be enough to keep him in today’s lineup for the series finale. Yost had hinted he would consider using new addition Raul Ibanez as the designated hitter in Butler’s place against right-hander Corey Kluber.
Yost cherishes consistency. For weeks he has ignored Hosmer’s ongoing stagnation and continued to pencil him into the upper third of the batting order. Yet on Saturday he felt compelled to alter his lineup. Salvador Perez replaced Butler in the No. 3 spot.
“I’ve really got no argument for it,” Butler said. “Because I haven’t been hitting the ball like I was.”
Yost executed the switch despite the recent winning. No longer could he watch Perez crack hits with the bases empty. No longer could he watch Butler strand his teammates. Asked what he had seen lately from Butler, who entered Saturday with one hit in his previous 19 at-bats, Yost said “Nothing.”
“He just got in a funk, you know?” Yost said. “He was really swinging the bat good until we went on this road trip. He was doing fine.”
In June, Butler posted an .811 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, which was better than his overall output in 2013 (.787 OPS) and within striking distance of his production in 2011 (.822).
“I still feel he’s capable of being the Billy that we’ve had,” Yost said. “He hasn’t really been.”
With that, Butler could not disagree. He does not expect to remain a No. 6 hitter for long. But he was a No. 6 hitter on Saturday.
“You set yourself for things like that when you’re not playing at the caliber I have my whole career,” he said. “I’m just not in a groove right now.”