Things change so fast in a pennant race. This is one of those things you probably understand from the outside, but can’t really feel until you see it. One night before, James Shields dominated the chasing Tigers and the Royals took perhaps the most important win of their season. The next night, the funk is back along with a painful fact:
The Royals have always struggled scoring runs, but have never had a more inept two weeks all season.
What had been a good crowd started clearing out in the eighth inning of what turned out to be a 6-3 loss to the Red Sox on Thursday night in the first game of the Royals’ last homestand in a season they hope extends to the playoffs.
In the last two weeks, they have played 13 games and scored 33 runs.
This is the Royals’ worst offensive stretch of the season, and it’s coming at an awful time. If we count the suspended game against the Indians as a pending loss, the Royals fell into a virtual tie for first place in the division with the Tigers.
It is an astounding testament to their pitching and defense that they’ve actually won six games while averaging 2.5 runs. There is an understanding among everyone — pitchers, hitters, coaches and fans — that their playoff hopes will die without adequate offense.
The thing that’s easy to overlook here is that the Red Sox didn’t play well, either. They gave the Royals their first run on a wild throw, left six batters on base in the first four innings, and generally played a lot like a veteran team playing out the string often plays.
This was an opportunity, and the Royals missed it. They missed it because Liam Hendriks lost control in a spot start. They missed it because the offense again didn’t score enough. And they missed it because they committed three errors.
This is only the second time all year they have committed more than two errors in a game, as telling a sign as you will ever see about the team’s energy and focus.
It is also true that the Royals’ plane didn’t land in Kansas City until around 2:30 in the morning. But that cannot be an excuse, and to the Royals’ credit, nobody mentioned it. This was poorly played from the beginning — by both teams, really — and the Royals know they can’t let that happen.
If this is a wipe-away game, fine. The Royals have six more games against the non-contending Red Sox and White Sox before the (barely) second-place Tigers close out the homestand in what should — in every sense of that word — be a wild weekend.
Even in a pennant race, bad nights happen. Just last week, the Tigers opened a homestand with two errors in an 8-2 loss to the Giants. Seattle just lost two in a row at home to the Astros. The other day, when manager Ned Yost told the joke about the hiker just needing to outrun the other hiker, not the bear, he was doing more than making funny. That’s how it goes in pennant races, or at least pennant races between good-but-not-great teams.
The worry goes beyond the Royals’ neophyte status as a contender, though that’s certainly part of it. Many fans are still waiting for that monster to appear from around the corner, and the Royals don’t have many players who’ve been through this. The thing about experience is you can’t have it until you have it. That’s both true and of no use in the short-term.
They are having far too many bad plate appearances. Sal Perez continues to swing at most every pitch he sees. Lorenzo Cain swung at a 2-0 pitch that appeared to be at least a foot off the plate. Alex Gordon has one hit in his last 29 at bats. They appear to be pressing a little more with each out, which is no way to go through the last part of a pennant race.
Every game is important, of course, but the Royals sure do look to be at a critical point. They have what should be a mushy part of the schedule here before the Tigers come to Kansas City, and then the last week of the season in Cleveland and Chicago. They are resilient perhaps above all else, and have dug their way out of much worse than a bad offensive stretch in which they still won six games.
On Friday, Yordano Ventura pitches against a rookie with a 7.39 ERA. They’ll shoot off fireworks after the game. It’s as good a chance as any for the Royals to be resilient again. These opportunities won’t last too much longer.