Wade Davis may be the American League’s finest reliever in 2014, and he calls the eighth inning home.
He warmed up as his teammates batted in the top of that inning in a 4-3 loss Tuesday to Tampa Bay. Yet, when the bullpen door opened, Davis stayed back and watched middle reliever Francisley Bueno jog toward the mound.
The Royals were trailing. Within the in-game schematics of manager Ned Yost, Davis does not pitch in the eighth inning when trailing.
Yost abides by baseball’s orthodoxy, and his bullpen usage can be rigid. He dislikes utilizing his best pitchers without a lead.
As Bueno struggled Tuesday, and a one-run deficit ballooned to three, pitchers Kelvin Herrera and Davis idled in the bullpen.
“That’s not Davis’ job, to come in when we’re behind in the eighth inning,” Yost said. “His job is to take care of it when we’re tied or ahead.”
The Royals never experienced either of those scenarios. Tampa Bay tagged Bueno for two extra runs, the precious sort that Yost often calls “tack-on runs.”
The extra runs proved decisive, and foiled the Royals as they scored two of their own against Rays closer Jake McGee.
“It’s just unfortunate that they got two runs in the bottom of the eighth,” Yost said. “It would have been nice if that wouldn’t have happened.”
The defeat does not land solely at the feet of Bueno.
The Rays’ surge against him sprung from an overzealous effort from shortstop Alcides Escobar. The offense failed to punish a pitcher returning from injury, and a four-hit night by Lorenzo Cain went for naught. Starter Jason Vargas blamed himself for a “lazy” change-up that opened the door for Tampa Bay to grab the lead in the sixth.
The Royals, 46-43, missed an opportunity to collect their fifth win on this nine-game trip. The importance of Wednesday’s game magnifies now. The Royals can capture a series victory, a positive record on the road swing and a spate of momentum to carry into a four-game series with Detroit before the All-Star break.
Vargas dueled with Jeremy Hellickson at the start. Neither offense presented much firepower. Hellickson gave up just one run and exited with one out in the fifth and runners at the corners.
Vargas surrendered just two runs, but he could not complete the sixth inning. He had suppressed the Rays until that final go-round. After yielding a single and a double, Vargas watched a two-run single from third baseman Evan Longoria splash into right field.
Longoria spoiled a curveball to put Tampa Bay on the board. But as Vargas recounted the inning, his folly occurred against outfielder Brandon Guyer in the previous at-bat. Vargas hung a change-up, Guyer doubled and the Rays had two men in scoring position for Longoria.
“It was one of those times when you miss you didn’t have a mind lapse,” Vargas said. “Or you give up halfway through the pitch. It was just one of those times that it happened. We weren’t able to recover.”
Guyer vexed the Royals once again in the eighth. Bueno had not given up a run since returning from the disabled list in June. Guyer opted to test him with a bunt. Bueno fumbled while fielding it, and the Rays’ dugout came alive.
Another reason for them to cheer sprouted soon after. Longoria chopped a grounder toward shortstop. Escobar scooped it up a few steps deep in the hole.
“I think Esky thought he was closer to the bag,” Yost said. “Omar (Infante) was standing right on it.”
Escobar eschewed a throw and sprinted toward the base. Guyer beat him there. Escobar threw to first. Longoria beat that attempt, too. James Loney soon followed with an RBI double, and Logan Forsythe capped the scoring with a sacrifice fly.
The late-game folly would have merely been annoying were it not for what followed. Facing McGee, a left-handed demon who merited All-Star consideration, the Royals came to life. Cain ripped his fourth hit of the night. Eric Hosmer slapped a double down the third-base line. Salvador Perez drove them in with a single up the middle.
The players draped their arms over the dugout railing and watched the offense breathe its last gasps. Alex Gordon flied out. When Infante swung through a 98-mph fastball for strike three, the night was over.
“We did the best we could to make a comeback there,” Cain said. “But fell short.”
They never did lead. They never even tied. There was never any reason, then, to use Wade Davis.