The solitary stay at the summit lasted 19 days, long enough to spur a Sports Illustrated cover, elevate expectations and dare a long-suffering group of fans to dream. The Royals ascended into first place of the American League Central on Aug. 11, and spoke as if they never would abdicate the throne.
With a 3-2 loss in 11 innings to the Cleveland Indians on Saturday, their fifth defeat in seven games, no longer can the Royals claim sole ownership of the lead. They now share the real estate with the Detroit Tigers, their overlords for so long, setting up for the most thrilling September in nearly three decades of Kansas City baseball.
That is, of course, if you can bear the heartburn and heartache. The 4-hour, 23-minute game Saturday tested the patience, frayed the nerves, and, in the final moments, boggled the minds of the 35,089 fans packing Kauffman Stadium.
“It’s agonizing,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “It’s extremely agonizing. Tremendous crowd. Tremendous energy. And not being able to perform in front of them.”
One of his final decisions added to the agonizing. For the 11th inning, Yost called upon Scott Downs, a southpaw pried off the scrap heap in July. Yost had burned through his late-game trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. He believed he had two choices, Downs or Jason Frasor. He chose Downs because he wanted him to face left-handed-hitting outfielder Michael Brantley.
First, Downs had to get through switch hitter Jose Ramirez. A rookie with a .324 batting average against lefties this season, Ramirez smashed a first-pitch triple. He scored when Brantley bounced a single over the drawn-in infield. Yost brought in Frasor, who gave up another run-scoring hit to Carlos Santana.
Downs, 0-4 with a 5.40 ERA, ended up with the loss. He did not stop by his locker to speak with reporters afterward, and his utility in the majors remains questionable. Yet the primary culprits on this evening were the hitters.
As the season winds down, the offense remains the organization’s primary concern. An old curse, the Royals’ inability to perform in clutch situations, reared its head on Saturday.
The Royals stranded 16 runners and managed only two hits in 18 at-bats with runners in scoring position. The second was an RBI double from Salvador Perez in the 11th. Erik Kratz struck out, ending the game and officially wasting a seven-inning, one-run effort from James Shields.
“We have to win these games,” Shields said. “Bottom line. We didn’t get the job done today.”
At one point in extra innings, Jarrod Dyson pointed up to the scoreboard. Lorenzo Cain saw the double digits under the marker for “L.O.B.” He could not believe the total.
“Leaving that many runners on base, we should have definitely beat these guys,” Cain said. “Had a few chances to walk it off. Had a few chances myself.”
Cain, at least, extended the game. Alex Gordon ignited the Royals’ first scoring sequence, and a bit of luck aided the cause. After Gordon walked, Billy Butler smashed a grounder back to the mound. Indians reliever Scott Atchinson spun and fired a low throw that second baseman Jason Kipnis could not handle. The ball trickled into the outfield, and Gordon sprinted to third.
The jam inspired Indians manager Terry Francona to use three more relievers in the inning. Royals finally scratched across a run when Cain reached first before a double play could be turned. Mike Moustakas grounded out with two of his teammates aboard for the third out.
The next two innings provided more of the same. Dyson stared at strike three with two runners on to finish the ninth. After loading the bases with one out in the 10th, Alcides Escobar grounded out and newcomer Jayson Nix struck out.
The usage of players like Kratz and Nix stemmed, in part, from the absence of designated hitter Josh Willingham. He reported to the clubhouse with a stiff back Saturday. When he tried to loosen up during the sixth inning, his body did not cooperate.
Thus the Royals used their substitutes as they lost three in a row for the first time since July 21, when the White Sox’s Chris Sale mastered them at U.S. Cellular Field. The next afternoon, Shields organized a players-only meeting at the request of Raul Ibanez, a collective gathering that represents the mythological Maginot Line for this season.
The mythology ignores the reality of the situation: The Royals experienced positive regression with Billy Butler, took advantage of good fortune and watched the Tigers crumble. As September beckons, Butler has cooled down, the luck has evened out and Detroit has arrested their descent.
The combination should make for a fascinating final month — as long as the Royals can reclaim the offensive ability they demonstrated in August. In five of the last seven games, the hitters have managed two runs or fewer.
“We haven’t been playing well the last couple of games,” Gordon said. “We had a good streak going, but you’re going to hit a bump in the road. You’ve just got to be mentally strong and keep grinding through it.”
Kauffman Stadium played host to “Retro Night” on Saturday, and harkened back to 1974. George Brett threw out the first pitch. The players wore throwback uniforms and stirrups.
Yet the first inning reminded of a much more recent version of this club, the hapless offensive unit from May and July. The first three batters reached to load the bases against Indians starter Trevor Bauer.
Bauer appeared annoyed by the strike zone of umpire James Hoye. The next three at-bats calmed him, even as they vexed his hosts. Butler flailed at a curveball in the dirt for strike three. Perez did the same. Ibanez lasted eight pitches before swinging through a 96-mph fastball.
“We had a multitude of opportunities, starting in the first inning,” Yost said. “We just couldn’t take advantage of it.”
The inning set an unappealing tone. The offensive inefficiency allowed Shields little margin for mistakes.
His team found itself in a similar predicament. The Tigers lost in the afternoon against the White Sox, blowing a three-run lead with reigning American League Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer on the mound. But Detroit’s victory in the nightcap of their doubleheader once again reduced the Royals’ division lead to a half-game.
To protect their advantage, the Royals turned to their most decorated pitcher. Shields looked sturdy, save for giving up an RBI double to Yan Gomes in the fourth.
The Indians remained ahead in the sixth, when the Royals added another chapter into this novella of batting failure.
With two outs in the sixth, Ibanez coaxed a walk out of Bauer. Cain knocked Bauer from the game by smashing a double into right-center field. Ibanez held at third. Francona tapped his left arm to invite southpaw Kyle Crockett to face Moustakas.
In this critical moment, Yost could not turn to his bench. Moustakas entered the game with a 14 hits and .179 batting average against lefties this season. The result of this encounter was no surprise. Crockett threw a 1-2 fastball that was belt-high and down the middle. Moustakas rolled it to the second baseman to extinguish the threat.
It was not the first moment of failure with runners in scoring position on Saturday. It would not be the last.
“We’ve got to come through to get to the playoffs,” Cain said. “We’ve got to come through in those tight situations.”