In all likelihood, James Shields is in the middle of his final months as a member of the Royals starting rotation. Just one game on Sunday, an All-Star break, and half a season to go.
This is the way baseball works, of course. Shields will be a free agent in the offseason. He will likely command nine figures in salary. For a team like the Royals, in a market like this, that’s one too many zeros.
This is context, of course, for what happened Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium. Shields worked seven innings, threw a season-high 121 pitches, and generally looked like the workhorse ace he’s been since he arrived in Kansas City in a blockbuster deal before the 2013 season.
The Royals lost anyway, falling 5-1 to Detroit in front of a crowd of 33,849 on a hot and muggy night. It was the Royals’ third straight loss. The offense was dysfunctional again. They are now just one game over .500 at 47-46. And, yes, they are now 7 1/2 games behind the AL Central-leading Tigers, 53-37.
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“We’re not producing runs,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
Designated hitter Billy Butler added: “It’s just kind of like the common theme right now.”
You might know, of course, that the Royals are 0-6 against Detroit at home this season. And that they close out the season’s first half Sunday with a date against former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. But for a moment, let’s get back to the Royals’ ace.
Shields’ 121 pitches included just 12 during a rather dominant seventh inning, keeping the Royals in a one-run game. He also returned to victim status in a rather unsavory trend: For the ninth time in the last two years, Shields picked up a loss when giving up three earned runs or fewer.
So it goes.
“We swept them at their place, and they’re doing a good job at our place,” Shields said. “It’s just baseball, dude.”
Detroit starter Rick Porcello allowed just one run while scattering six hits in seven innings. The Royals’ offense left six runners on base. The hammer came when reliever Aaron Crow yielded three runs in the ninth on a solo homer by J.D. Martinez and a two-run blast from Alex Avila.
Now the Royals will recharge and face Verlander in the series finale, trying to salvage something — anything — as the All-Star break looms.
“We want to get in the playoffs,” said Butler, who was two for three with a sacrifice fly and a double. “We’d love to win the division — don’t get me wrong. That’s our main goal. But we’re still right in the thick of stuff.”
For now, other problems persist. Alex Gordon is recovering from a wrist injury. The offense appears poised to return to its early-season hibernation.
“I could sit here and I could probably reel off five or six reasons why,” Yost said. “But this is the big leagues. The bottom line is you’re either getting it done or you’re not getting it done, and we’re not getting it done.”
So it goes. One night after going one for 11 with runners in scoring position, the Royals’ offense stayed stuck in neutral. Here was one sample: In the bottom of the fifth, Butler splashed a double off the left-field foul line, Mike Moustakas walked and Noki Aoki loaded the bases with a two-out walk.
That brought Lorenzo Cain to the plate — the same Cain who entered the night hitting a team-leading .313 and displayed his Gold Glove form while crashing into the wall in the top of the first. Moments later, Cain went down swinging against Porcello. Here it was, a disappointing offense mired in another dead spot.
“This is a big series for us going into the break,” Porcello said. “We were definitely looking to at least create some space.”
The Royals finally touched home plate in the bottom of the sixth, cutting the Tigers’ lead to 2-1 on a sacrifice fly from Butler. The rally began with back-to-back singles from Salvador Perez and Omar Infante, and when Butler lined the ball to medium depth in center, Perez didn’t hesitate. He scored easily.
The Tigers nicked Shields for one run in the top of the third, when center fielder Austin Jackson continued his weekend-long evisceration of Royals pitching. Jackson, who entered the night with four hits in the series, cracked a double to deep right-center and scored on an RBI single by Ian Kinsler.
Detroit tacked on another run in the top of the fourth. Longtime Royal killer Torii Hunter bludgeoned a ball over the head of center fielder Jarrod Dyson, and after a solid relay throw from shortstop Alcides Escobar, Moustakas was slow to apply the tag as Hunter slid in safely with a one-out triple.
Shields rebounded by striking out Nick Castellanos before Avila drove in Hunter with a two-out single.
Back to the clubhouse in the moments after the game. One year ago, Shields watched as the Royals lost five straight heading into the All-Star break. That team rebounded and won 86 games.
So for a second, Shields smiled. His team had lost three straight. The All-Star break beckoned. No sweat.
“Maybe we should lose five,” Shields said, “considering what we did after the break last year.”
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.