The challenge arrived in the form of a 92-mph fastball. Danny Duffy did not have to throw it. But he opted for valor rather than discretion, and the Royals suffered the consequences in a 2-1 loss to the Red Sox.
In the sixth inning of a tied game on Saturday night, Duffy fell behind hirsute Boston slugger Mike Napoli. At 3-1, with none on and one out, Duffy could have placed Napoli on first base with a free pass. Instead he flung a belt-high heater.
“He was ready for it,” Duffy said. “To say the least.”
The baseball disappeared in the glare of the lighting stanchions high above the Green Monster and crashed onto Lansdowne Street. As Duffy walked off the mound, the thought coursed through his mind: I should have walked him.
The home run cracked the deadlock and resolved the night’s proceedings. The Royals, 48-48, were once again unable to challenge their cellar-residing foes in the latter innings. The Royals have lost five of seven, fallen back to a .500 record and third place, and effectively decimated all the goodwill engendered by their performance last month.
“Time is of the essence,” manager Ned Yost said. “We need to make up some ground.”
If this defeat lacked the head-scratching and kvetching of the previous night, the end result was still the same, yet another one-run defeat for a team that has experienced far too many this season. The offense failed to protect Duffy, who yielded those two runs across 6 2/3 innings. The hitters cobbled together five hits and four walks against Red Sox starter Rubby De La Rosa, from which they generated just one tally.
“When you put up one run, you’re not giving yourself a chance to win the game,” Royals designated hitter Billy Butler said.
The loss dropped the Royals’ record in one-run games to 10-20. The year before, the club won 31 games like this, the most in the American League. To Yost, the responsibility for the difference falls at the feet of the offense.
“We’re not scoring enough runs,” Yost said. “Simple as that. When we score, we win.”
Asked if the club needed to acquire a hitter before the July 31 trade deadline, Yost demurred. He bemoaned both the lack of available targets on the market and his own club’s inability to heat up as a collective unit. At a time when Eric Hosmer and Omar Infante are swinging well, others like Butler, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain have cooled.
The night before, Yost committed a tactical blunder that cost his club a victory. Yost accepted responsibility for the mistake, exposing left-handed reliever Scott Downs to give up a two-run home run to pinch hitter Jonny Gomes, and the grumbles inside the clubhouse about the decision had faded by the time Saturday’s game began.
A third-inning triple by Jarrod Dyson led to an early Royals lead, but for the second occasion in two days, an error by shortstop Alcides Escobar cost the Royals a run. Duffy was laboring in the fourth, after a single by Napoli and a walk by Gomes. Just back from the disabled list, Shane Victorino ripped a grounder up the middle. The ball was well-struck but playable — it could have generated a double play.
Instead, the baseball shot beneath Escobar’s glove and through his legs. Napoli chugged home from second. Duffy managed to settle down and pick up a pair of fly-outs to limit the damage. Afterward he refused to blame his teammates for both their defensive miscues and their offensive malaise.
“I’m the one that went out there and threw a fastball at Napoli’s letters,” Duffy said. “I’m the one that he hit the home run off. I could have done my job better tonight.”
His teammates, meanwhile, appeared content wasting opportunities. From the fourth through the sixth, the team blanked on a trio of chances.
“They were two-out opportunities,” Yost said. “But every once in a while, you need to get a big hit.”
On Saturday there were none to be found. The Royals went zero for five with runners in scoring position and stranded seven. In the top of the fourth, before the Red Sox evened the score, Gomes collided with rookie shortstop Brock Holt, and Mike Moustakas reached second on the error. There he remained, because Nori Aoki struck out.
In the fifth, Gomes and Holt miscommunicated again, this time allowing Infante’s bloop to fall for a two-out double. There he remained, because Hosmer struck out.
In the sixth, Gordon rolled a single down the third-base line, and took second with one out on De La Rosa’s subsequent wild pitch. There he remained, because Butler grounded out and Aoki did likewise.
And so they sagged back into their clubhouse, their shots missed, their openings closed, another loss hanging on their resume. Here in the middle of July of the most anticipated Royals season in 20 years, more of the same only stings.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance to win,” Butler said. “Because when you score one run, it’s not going to work out most nights.”