Scott Downs loped into the outfield grass, and Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr., understood his night was over. He turned his back to the diamond, waiting for a pinch hitter to replace him. The impending maneuver appeared obvious to so many inside Fenway Park, except the man behind the controls inside the Royals dugout.
“I outsmarted myself,” Ned Yost said.
Into the sixth inning of an eventual 5-4 Royals loss stepped Jonny Gomes, and with one simple stroke, Boston manager John Farrell had out-foxed his managerial counterpart. Downs is 39. The White Sox released him earlier this month. His sole value is an ability to baffle left-handed hitters – which is precisely what Gomes is not.
Asked to procure one out to protect a one-run lead, Downs held the line for five pitches. His sixth was blasted over the wall in center field for a two-run shot, and the Royals never recovered. They frittered away a three-run lead in that deciding frame, and face-planted to start the season’s second half.
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The blame started at the top. Because it was the sixth inning, Yost explained later, he did not expect Farrell to make a move. Yost found himself caught flat-footed. He regretted removing starting James Shields from the contest with a runner at second after 112 pitches, and did not consider walking Gomes to fill the opening at first base.
“When you analyze it after the fact, which is a lot easier to do before the fact, it was the wrong move,” he said. “Gomes makes a living off left-handed pitchers, coming in spots like that. It was just a bad decision on my part.”
The sixth inning represented a systematic failure for the Royals (48-47). Their ace, Shields, yielded a two-run homer to a strikeout-prone rookie. Their two best outfield defenders, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain, failed to flag down catchable balls. At last some blame belongs with Downs, foolish enough to challenge Gomes with an 89-mph sinker at the thighs.
“He won that battle,” Downs said. “I made my pitches. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The decision to insert Downs into this scenario can be considered curious at best, mind-boggling at worst. Farrell cannot even be credited with setting a trap. He merely reaped the benefits.
After skidding into the All-Star break, the Royals continued to tumble on Friday. Shields allowed four runs in 5 2/3 innings. Despite a three-hit night from Eric Hosmer, the offense failed to properly punish Boston starter Clay Buchholz despite 10 hits. The defense lacked his usual crispness: Gordon dropped a ball when diving to start the sixth, and Cain could not catch up to a ball in the gap two batters later.
The misplay by Cain, which granted Stephen Drew a double, set up the critical scenario with Downs. The decision to remove Shields and crack open the bullpen fell to Yost.
“I didn’t do my job getting outs,” Shields said. “We had some unfortunate plays happen.”
The irony of Friday night’s result is Yost cast himself as something of a harmless observer beforehand. During a four-day respite this week, Yost rode his tractor through his farm in Georgia. As chigger bugs attacked his legs, leaving them pocked with bites, he considered how his club might combat the second half of this season.
“You’re thinking all the time,” Yost said. “But thinking and doing are two different things. I mean, you’re thinking about ‘How can we hit better?’ We’ve got to hit better. ‘What moves can we make?’ We can’t make no moves. ‘How do we get Billy [Butler] going?’ Billy’s got to get going.”
The onus, he concluded, fell on the players to produce. “A lot of stuff,” he said, “you’ve just got to go do it.”
The quest to do just that began on an idyllic, 68-degree night at Fenway Park. After trading runs early, the Royals reclaimed the lead in the fourth, but squandered a chance to batter Buchholz. The frame featured a quartet of hits, a pair of unproductive groundballs and one mistake by a ball girl down the first-base line.
The mistake occurred after Infante raked a leadoff single. Hosmer smoked a grounder past first baseman Mike Napoli and just inside the bag. The ball girl stepped out to scoop it, anyway. From his spot in the dugout, Yost looked perplexed. The umpires placed Infante at third and Hosmer at second.
Yost protested the ruling, positing that Infante could have scored if the ball caromed off the wall. His hitters rendered the point moot soon after: Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon each ripped RBI singles to plate the two runs. With runners at the corners and none out, though, both Billy Butler and Moustakas failed to advance runners with groundouts.
“We did leave a couple runs on (the table),” Yost said.
The at-bats haunted the Royals as the game dragged on. Hosmer added an RBI single in the fifth, but from there, the bats quieted. With one out in the eighth, Gordon found himself at third base. He represented the tying run.
There he remained. Moustakas chopped a 2-0 curveball into the waiting glove of Dustin Pedroia, and Escobar managed another measly groundout. Yet the manager would shoulder the blame.
After the game, as the players drifted into the night, Moustakas approached Yost to atone for his failure in those spots.
“We had enough runs to win,” Yost told him. “If I would have run the pitching right.”