A strange mix of frustration and determination fills the losing clubhouse. It is quiet. Somber. A group of professional athletes with genuine love for each other and real expectations for more is now one loss from sadness.
The Royals were never supposed to win this game. Not against Astros ace Dallas Keuchel, and not in this place, where he is some combination of Sandy Koufax and He-Man.
But baseball is endlessly unpredictable, and also a cruel minx, so the Royals head back to their hotel rooms knowing the American League Division Series swung away from them with a 4-2 loss on Sunday that absolutely could’ve been the other way. Should’ve been the other way, even.
The Royals were, truly, nearly historic in their inefficiency. They hit two home runs, two doubles, walked four times and somehow scored only two runs. According to the awesome Baseball-Reference, teams collected at least two home runs, four extra-base hits and four walks 382 times. They scored at least three runs 380 times.
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The Royals put so much time and energy into baserunning. This year, no team was better hitting with two outs. For them, wasting chances like this is a particularly fatal flaw.
“Definitely frustration,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “We had a couple chances today. We just didn’t get it done, myself included. Just didn’t get it done.”
Keuchel is a terrific talent, probably the AL Cy Young winner this year, but on this day he was less superhero and more survivor. The Royals pushed him to the precipice with strong plate appearances, continually giving themselves a chance to grab this series, and continually failing.
The frustration mounts, not just because it puts the Royals in an elimination game here Monday afternoon, but because the guys they have come to trust and rely upon were the same ones to come up empty.
So much of the focus in this series has been on the pitchers. Keuchel’s dominance. Johnny Cueto’s struggles. Yordano Ventura’s possibilities. But the Royals have lost two games in this series in which they’ve scored a total of four runs.
On Sunday, they gave themselves chance after chance after chance to quiet the Thunder Stix here, but got bupkis. The biggest offenders were Hosmer, the team’s most gifted hitter, and Gordon, the team’s most accomplished position player.
Five of the seven innings Keuchel pitched could’ve been dramatically changed by those two men. Together, they made five outs — each ending the inning — with three strikeouts.
“Losing is the frustration,” Gordon said. “When you get guys on base and it doesn’t happen, there’s frustration there. But with our team, I think we just kind of move on and keep grinding away.”
Let’s go through it. First inning, Hosmer is up with a runner on second. A base hit gives the Royals the lead. He grounds out. Inning over.
Second inning, Gordon is up with a runner on second. A base hit gives the Royals the lead. He strikes out on three pitches. Inning over.
Fourth inning, Gordon is up with two runners on. A base hit gives the Royals a two-run lead. He flies out. Inning over.
Fifth inning, Hosmer is up with two on. The Astros are confident enough they can get Hosmer that they intentionally walked Lorenzo Cain, who had homered. A base hit gives the Royals a two-run lead. Anything in a gap makes it a three-run lead. He strikes out. Inning over.
Sixth inning, Gordon is up with a runner on second. A base hit ties it. He strikes out. Inning over.
That’s five opportunities earned by the team with strong plate appearances and fearless approaches, all squandered.
Now, we’re all adults here, we understand that Keuchel is one of the game’s best pitchers. There is no shame in losing to him, particularly in this place.
But the Royals are a big-boy team, with big-boy expectations, which means they have to perform against other big boys. Advancing in the playoffs requires your best to beat their best, and here, the Royals’ best lost.
“He’s a good pitcher,” Gordon says. “That’s one of the best power sinkers I’ve seen. You’re right on it until the last second, and then you swing through it somehow.”
This is starting to be a trend for the Royals in these playoffs. They are hitting .238 against the Astros, and just five-for-25 (.200) with runners in scoring position. They have already left 25 men on base.
That’s a team stat, and the Royals — particularly with the bats — have always succeeded and failed as a team. But the game has a way of finding certain guys, of shining the light brighter at certain moments.
The playoffs only amplify that, and Hosmer could use some makeup. He has just one hit — that butt-out single that turned Game 2 — in 12 at bats. In the two losses, he has come to the plate with a total of six runners on base, including four in scoring position. He has no hits in those situations, and his outs have ended four innings that otherwise may have been rallies.
This is a small sample size, of course, but it’s also true that championships are won and lost in small sample sizes.
To be clear: None of this is to blame the Royals’ situation on Hosmer or Gordon or anyone else. That would be an inaccurate oversimplification.
But this is an unassailable truth: Hosmer and Gordon had repeated chances to shove this game, and the series, in the Royals’ favor, and neither did it.
Now facing elimination, the Royals will need that last part to change, whether it comes from Hosmer or Gordon or any of their teammates.