Entering their game against the New York Yankees on Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals’ lone loss in the previous seven games was a 12-1 drubbing at Tampa Bay last week.
Seven of those runs that day were amassed in the first five innings against Jason Hammel, who thus was relegated to taking one for the team and mopping up for himself through seven innings.
“We needed innings tonight, first and foremost,” Hammel said afterward. “So if there’s any consolation, that was one.”
Alas, there was less solace for everyone in his encore reprisal of that scenario against the Yankees, a sequel that left the Royals behind 5-0 after four innings on the way to a 7-1 loss.
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No one feels worse about this than Hammel, a standup guy who afterward patiently answered every question that came his way and did his best to try to account for his decline so far this season.
“Outstanding defense behind me, too; it could have been a lot worse, if you think about it,” said Hammel, who was victimized by his inability to take advantage of two-strike counts and figure his biggest issue is “probably trying to do too much … basically trying to throw too hard or make the perfect pitch.”
But this is not a sustainable role for a team in many ways approaching a crossroads.
The Royals now are 1-5 in games started by the 34-year-old Hammel, who won 15 games and had a 3.83 ERA with the Chicago Cubs a year ago and appeared to have the profile to help stabilize the rotation.
But after four dreadful starts in his last five, he increasingly looks like either he peaked in 2016 (during which he sat out the postseason after battling elbow tightness in September) or is out of his depth back in the American League (in which his career ERA is nearly a run more than his 4.15 in the NL) and simply not what the Royals had expected.
This has become what might safely be called a trend, particularly if you consider that Hammel has had only two truly mitigating starts.
And it’s hindering the Royals’ chances to hoist themselves back above .500 and firmly into contention in a season that could be their last shot at postseason play for a while considering the potential looming free agency of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain.
Surely, it’s gone on long enough now that this has to be approaching encroaching into manager Ned Yost’s generous buffer zone for making changes.
You know Yost’s drill: When you start thinking it’s time, wait a week. Then … maybe wait another week.
That philosophy has paid dividends before, and maybe it will reap benefits if he stays the course again now.
Trouble is, it’s hard to know what fixes might take right now with Hammel, who registered his best start as a Royal on May 5 against Cleveland in a performance he largely attributed to a decision to pitch solely out of the stretch.
“The fix that I saw was this,” Hammel, who gave up one run and three hits in six innings that day, said a few days later. “I’m a long, tall guy. It’s usually pretty hard to get everything on time for us bigger guys. So anything to simplify the delivery to make it easier.”
Or as Yost put it Tuesday: “Well, I mean, you don’t really think you turn a corner after one game, but it was encouraging.”
Working exclusively out of the stretch since then, though, Hammel has given up 11 earned runs and 22 hits in 13 innings.
Part of reconciling how to proceed, of course, is what other options the Royals have as they await the impending return of the injured Ian Kennedy, in whose place Chris Young surrendered nine runs in 6.2 innings over two starts.
So if they were to consider at least temporarily pulling Hammel from the rotation, well, it’s hard to project Young offering more stability.
Also on the current staff but in that category is Travis Wood, who has started 133 major league games but none since 2015 and is struggling mightily himself with an 11.68 ERA.
Mike Minor has started 110 big-league games and is excelling in the bullpen, but the Royals are committed to minimizing his work load as he continues to make his way back from a torn labrum.
The more extreme move, of course, would be to recall Josh Staumont from Class AAA Omaha, where he is excelling but the Royals want to give him more time to mature.
So there’s no easy answer here, but the clock is ticking on Hammel and the Royals and something has to give.