Inside his office, hours before a 3-1 defeat to the White Sox on Monday, Royals manager Ned Yost knew precisely the prescription for his plummeting baseball team.
“One big hit in a crucial situation,” Yost said. “It always seems to take the pressure off everything when you’re struggling.”
In the fourth inning, clinging to life against White Sox ace Chris Sale, Yost thought he had found one. Alcides Escobar rattled a double into the left-field corner. Representing the tying run, Danny Valencia chugged from first. Third-base coach Mike Jirschele waved him home.
And then …
“I was fully anticipating scoring,” Valencia said. “Until, obviously … ”
“If Danny is a half a step faster,” Yost said, “he’s safe.”
Instead, the White Sox cut down Valencia with a tidy relay, and after two hours and 46 minutes of baseball, Yost was still waiting for that one critical knock.
The Royals, 48-50, dropped their seventh game in eight tries. They forced Sale to labor, but they did not cause him to lose. Sale struck out eight in seven innings and dodged trouble during the latter innings to further the Royals’ slide.
In their last three games, the offense has mustered a total of two runs. On Monday they failed to support Jeremy Guthrie, who survived six rocky frames and allowed only three runs.
Despite their dip below .500, the Royals maintain interest in upgrades. They are still seeking help in right field and perhaps at designated hitter, with players such as Philadelphia’s Marlon Byrd, Boston’s Jonny Gomes and Texas’ Alex Rios on their radar, according to people familiar with the situation. The team was said to have scouts at Texas’ game at Yankee Stadium, in Philadelphia and, of course, elsewhere throughout the majors.
Yet a perception prevails among rival executives, and even some within the Royals organization, that the Royals will not add significant payroll this season. It is up to the team to dispel that notion. General manager Dayton Moore did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
The lineup did not change for Monday night. Instead, Yost leaned upon repeated rhetoric and attempts at humor.
The Royals entered the day ranked 13th in the American League in slugging and last in the majors in home runs. Even so, Yost still imagines a lineup stocked with power hitters.
“If you don’t believe me, just watch batting practice,” he said. “We pound balls out of the ballpark. But I’ve yet to be able to get our opposing manager to use our B.P. pitcher to be their pitcher for that day.”
To be sure, Sale represents a greater challenge than first-base coach Rusty Kuntz. Sale transforms opponents into the equivalent of Pedro Ciriaco: During his first 14 starts, Sale suppressed hitters to the tune of a .508 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against him.
Sale dispatched the Royals with nine pitches in the first inning. When he returned to the mound, he possessed a two-run lead.
Guthrie was erratic from the start, and his defense offered little aid. He allowed a leadoff single, plunked the next batter and watched Valencia bungle the transfer on a chopper in the third at-bat. Adam Dunn drove in two runners with a single.
The wildness of Guthrie prompted a brief spat. After Dunn’s single, a fastball connected with third baseman Conor Gillaspie. With two outs in the bottom of the second, Sale plunked Valencia with a pitch. The umpires did not issue warnings to either side, and tensions soon eased.
Guthrie apologized to Valencia multiple times for causing the situation.
“It’s my fault Danny got hit like that,” Guthrie said. “Their guy went out and did the right thing, in terms of the way you play the game.”
The Royals never recovered from that opening deficit. The afternoon before, Alex Gordon instructed his teammates to “look in the mirror.” The effort against Red Sox ace Jon Lester disgusted him. Gordon, at least, answered his own exhortation. His broken-bat single in the fourth was his second hit of the game.
With two outs, Gordon swiped second base and he scored on Valencia’s single. The run halved the deficit, and the Royals had a chance to tie when Alcides Escobar’s double rattled around the left-field corner. Valencia chugged homeward, losing steam as third-base coach Mike Jirschele’s signaled him home.
“I stumbled a little around second base,” Valencia said. “That was enough.”
As the ball bounced off the wall, left fielder Alejandro De Aza scooped it with his bare hand. His relay to shortstop Alexei Ramirez was true. The throw home drew Tyler Flowers a step up the line, but he recovered with plenty of time to tag Valencia to end the frame and protect the lead.
Sale provided the rest of the necessary protection. He induced a pair of ground-outs and stranded the tying run at second in the fifth inning. In the sixth, he overcame a single by Salvador Perez and a walk to Billy Butler to keep the Royals down.
Sale fanned three batters in that inning. The sequences demonstrated both Sale’s dominance and the Royals’ obedience.
Gordon chased Sale’s hellacious slider to end a seven-pitch encounter. Valencia fished at a 95-mph fastball at his eyes. Sale handcuffed Escobar with a 96-mph fastball on the inside. Escobar stood frozen as Flowers tossed the ball back onto the diamond with a flourish.
The White Sox tacked on a run against Guthrie in the bottom of the inning, and the outcome was all but decided. The search for “one big hit,” the oasis in the midseason desert, continues. On Monday, the double by Escobar was a mere mirage.
“That sure had a chance,” Yost said, “of tying the ball game right there.”