Edinson Volquez snaked through a back hallway in the bowels of Progressive Field, taking a seat at a computer monitor in a small nook adjacent to the visitors’ clubhouse. With his road gray uniform still on, and sweat still caked on his forehead, Volquez studied a series of video clips, trying to isolate the main problem in the Royals’ 6-1 loss to the Indians on Friday night.
In a small corner, tucked behind the trainer’s room, Volquez found his answer. His delivery had failed him.
“I got to work on my mechanics,” Volquez said.
The problem, Volquez said, was not big. His front side was flying open a bit during the early innings. It was enough.
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In his 12th start of the season, Volquez allowed seven hits and five runs in 6 1/3 innings. The night represented his worst performance since surrendering five runs in a loss here in Cleveland on May 8.
As Volquez struggled to find command of his fastball, Indians starter Danny Salazar ripped through the heart of the Royals lineup, allowing just one run in eight innings. On Thursday night, the Royals had coughed up a one-run lead in the ninth inning and lost in excruciating fashion. On Friday, the story was starting pitching. The drama was absent.
The Royals, 30-24, lost two straight games for the first time since May 10. No matter what happens over the final two games in Cleveland, their streak of series victories will end at six.
In the moments after the game, Volquez shouldered a large chunk of the blame.
“I was all over the place,” Volquez said. “I had a bad fastball — bad fastball command, and I make a couple mistakes, and they made me pay for it.”
The Royals remained in first place by a half game over Cleveland, 30-25, a team that has now pieced together three straight wins. It is too early, perhaps, to put any stake in the AL Central standings. But perhaps it is not too early to assess how the Royals and Indians match up.
Before the Royals transformed into world champions, before they won two straight American League pennants, they first had to master their opponents in the AL Central, and slowly, team by team, they did. During the 2015 season, the Royals rolled over Chicago and Minnesota, beating each team 12 times in 19 games. And they finally conquered Detroit, a long-time nemesis, taking the season series 10-9.
And yet Cleveland has remained a sneaky foe. In the last two seasons, the Royals finished 19-19 against the Indians. In five games this year, they are 1-4 — with all five games coming at Progressive Field. They will face Indians twice more this weekend. The positive news: They will play nine of the last 12 in the season series at Kauffman Stadium.
“We take every game the same,” Royals manager Ned Yost said, dismissing a question about the importance of divisional games. “We don’t put any emphasis on any game. Our focus and attitude is ‘This game is the most important game of the year,’ and that’s the way you go about it.”
On Friday, the Royals were effectively rendered powerless by Salazar, a 26-year-old right-hander who imposed his will with a mid-90s fastball, a nasty splitter and an effective slider. Salazar allowed just three hits, his stuff so dominant that he could afford to walk five Royals, making up for the baserunners by striking out nine.
“He threw 98 miles an hour on his 112th pitch,” Yost said. “You take a 96- to 98-miles-per-hour fastball and put an incredible split with it — pretty darn good.”
For 10 straight games the Royals had piled up at least 10 hits, setting a club record. On Friday they finished with just three in nine innings — though two did have some degree of significance.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar recorded his 1,000th career hit on a single to center in the sixth inning. He became the 10th active shortstop to reach the mark.
“I’m so happy for 1,000 hits in Major League Baseball,” Escobar said.
In addition, catcher Drew Butera homered for the second straight day, jumping on a slider from Salazar in the third inning. In seven big-league seasons, Butera had never homered in back-to-back games. In seven game since replacing an injured Salvador Perez, Butera has flashed some rare pop, racking up two doubles and two homers (one shy of his career high for a season).
For the Royals, the rest of the offensive output was less encouraging. For the first time in 12 career starts, second baseman Whit Merrifield failed to procure a hit. Lorenzo Cain finished zero for 4, snapping a six-game hitting streak. Designated hitter Kendrys Morales had another hitless night, his season average dropping to .193.
If there was not already growing concern over Morales’ production, the Indians put a spotlight on the designated hitter, twice walking first baseman Eric Hosmer with a man on base and two outs.
In the first inning, with first base open, Salazar intentionally walked Hosmer to get to Morales. In the sixth inning, with the Royals trailing 4-1, Salazar pitched around Hosmer again. Morales ended the inning both times.
“We got to adjust to that,” Yost conceded. “We’ll figure it out. When Kendrys is struggling a little bit, they’re obviously going to pitch around (Hosmer) as hot as he is.”
In a vacuum, Friday’s loss would have felt nearly routine. But coming one night after offering a late-inning gift to the Indians, the result stung a little bit more.
Volquez had opened the bottom of the first by issuing two walks. He needed 26 pitches to navigate a scoreless inning. He ran into more problems in the second.
Squaring off against Indians catcher Yan Gomes, Volquez left a 1-0 sinker in the center of the plate. Gomes smashed the pitch to deep left-center. Volquez hung his head at impact, spinning back toward the outfield.
It was the first homer allowed by Volquez in three starts. The Royals were in a 1-0 hole after two innings. The Indians would tack on three more runs in the third, taking a 4-1 lead.
“It happens sometime,” Volquez said, referencing his inconsistent mechanics.
By the middle innings, Volquez said, he was able to make an adjustment, keeping his front side closed a beat longer. He found his release point and worked into the seventh inning. By then, the game was essentially out of reach.
“You got a lot of energy in the first couple innings,” Volquez said. “(Sometimes) you get a little tired, and your arm slot just goes in the right position.”