The baseball hung in the sky for eight seconds, and Billy Butler stared upward for the duration. His eyes were bare, without protective shades to ward off any glare, but he insisted afterward the sun had not hampered him.
As Jonny Gomes’ soaring pop-up floated toward first base, the Royals’ temporary replacement shuffled around and made a backhanded stab. “I just misjudged it,” Butler said in a quiet clubhouse after his team absorbed an 8-3 drubbing by the Oakland Athletics.
His aim wasn’t true. The ball thunked onto the grass. The crowd at O.co Coliseum roared, and the Royals experienced their first pangs for the defensive play of injured Gold Glover Eric Hosmer. Butler pours hours into his fielding, but his quality cannot match that of KC’s regular at first.
“He screwed up,” manager Ned Yost said. “He didn’t catch the ball.”
For some teams, the result would have been a measly single. For Oakland, it was an invitation to pounce. The best clubs do not let gaffes go unpunished, and the Athletics are the class of the American League.
After Butler’s flub, the A’s unloaded for eight runs on Jason Vargas and Aaron Crow thanks to mistakes in the field by Butler, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon. Oakland batted around in the inning and swatted aside the Royals (56-53) in the process.
“We got careless, and it came back to bite us,” Vargas said.
Vargas (8-5, 3.69 ERA) weathered the pounding in his first start back after missing nearly a month because of an appendectomy. His teammates cobbled together three runs against new Oakland ace Jon Lester, but when he departed midway through the seventh, the Royals still trailed by five. After a 1-0 victory on Friday, Kansas City can still sneak out of the Bay Area with a series victory if James Shields trumps former Tampa teammate Scott Kazmir on Sunday.
For a few innings Saturday, the script from the previous night looked recycled. Yost considers Lester a friend. His farm in rural Georgia borders a property owned by Lester. They share resources during the winter. Yost noticed the bewilderment apparent in Lester’s face on Friday, when he arrived in Oakland, suddenly wrenched from the only franchise he had ever known.
“It’s a shock, man,” Yost said. “When you’ve gone through what he’s gone through in Boston. He should have got the dadgum World Series MVP last year. Pitching them to two world championships. Loves the town. It’s a shock.”
Thanks to the quirks of scheduling, the Royals became the club Lester faced in his final start for the Red Sox at Fenway Park and the club he faced in his first start for Oakland at O.co Coliseum. The first outing was a masterful performance. Lester squashed Kansas City for eight scoreless innings, and yielded four hits along the way.
In one turn through the order on Saturday, the Royals collected a trio of knocks. A leadoff single by Alcides Escobar in the third inning translated into a run. His teammates followed with him a succession of tidy, productive at-bats: Nori Aoki walked. Omar Infante advanced the duo with a bunt. Salvador Perez lashed a fly to center field, deep enough to plate Escobar.
So Vargas inherited a lead. On July 8, he pitched into the sixth inning at Tropicana Field. He awoke in the middle of the night with wrenching pains in his abdomen. The persisting discomfort forced him into the hospital, where his appendix was removed via a laparoscopic procedure.
Back to action on Saturday, he did not allow a man on base through four innings. Then he unraveled, undone by a succession of well-placed singles, defensive miscues and the relentlessness of his hosts.
“We just didn’t play good as a whole in the fifth inning,” Vargas said. “I left some balls up. Didn’t play defense. That’s what happens. It unraveled.”
Oakland got its first base runner at the start of the frame. Derek Norris dunked a double into right. Then Gomes took first on Butler’s mistake. Stephen Vogt chopped a bunt back to the mound, and Vargas whirled for a forceout at third.
With one out, Vargas looked capable of suppressing the threat. Then Alberto Callapso tied the game with a single to right. Four more singles followed, the last grounder off the bat of shortstop Jed Lowrie. The ball skipped beneath the glove of Mike Moustakas and into the outfield.
“I just didn’t make the play,” Moustakas said. “That’s all there really is.”
Vargas departed, and manager Ned Yost watched Crow sprinkle gasoline on the fire. He walked in a run and yielded a two-run single to Gomes. An extra run came home because Gordon overran Gomes’ hit, a slapstick capper to a miserable inning.
“I took my eye off the ball,” Gordon said. “I was trying to throw the guy at home before I got the ball. Stupid mistake on my part, not seeing the ball in the glove. That’s what happens.”
It was a collective collapse. Vargas wobbled. Butler misjudged. Moustakas and Gordon failed. Oakland never ceased pounding on their opponents.
“The fifth inning, you probably won’t see something like that happen again,” Vargas said. “If you do, it probably won’t be for a while. It’s one of those ones that got away from us.”