The story of a loss could be told in three pitches.
1. A 92-mph fastball to Detroit’s Justin Upton that bisected the middle of the plate. 2. A 74-mph curveball to Detroit’s Ian Kinsler that hung in the middle of the zone. 3. A 90-mph sinker to Detroit’s Andrew Romine that stayed up, sitting on the inner third.
All three pitches came spinning from the right arm of Royals rookie starter Jakob Junis. All three caught too much of the plate. All three were demolished for home runs in a 7-3 loss to the Tigers on Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park.
“These are the best hitters in the world,” Junis said. “So when you make a mistake, they’re going to take advantage of you.”
The Royals (38-39) lost a series for the first time since May 31, when they dropped two of three to the Tigers at Kauffman Stadium. In that series, they avoided Detroit starter Michael Fulmer, who took the mound on Thursday and was close to perfect for 8 2/3 innings. In constrast, there was Junis, who was reminded of the thin margin of error that exists here in the major leagues.
Upton hammered a three-run blast in the bottom of the first. Kinsler yanked a solo shot in the third. Romine skied a deep drive to right field in the fourth, pushing the Tigers’ lead to 6-0. Soon after, Royals manager Ned Yost emptied his bench, offering a white flag and rest for his veterans.
“We just didn’t pitch good today and matched up against a really, really good pitcher,” Yost said.
Junis fell behind against six of the Tigers’ first 16 hitters. When he made a mistake, he paid for it. When his afternoon was over, he drew a direct correlation between limiting homers and having success as a starting pitcher.
“It’s really just keeping the ball in the ballpark,” he said. “I’ve given up home runs in some of my bad ones. I think that’s just making better pitches, not falling behind.”
In some ways, the observation is obvious. Yet Junis has been stung by the longball. In 33 innings across six starts, he has allowed nine homers. He weathered three solo shots in a victory against the San Diego Padres on June 11. But the barrage of homers spelled doom in a loss to the Los Angeles Angels on June 17 and again on Thursday. In the minors, a pitcher can fall behind and survive. Up here, the results can change a game — and quickly.
For now, the Royals are still riding with Junis and Matt Strahm in the rotation. The presence of two young pitchers, Yost concedes, increases the likelihood for volatility. Junis is a command-and-control right-hander who projects as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter. Strahm is still transitioning from a bullpen role. But until Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns are healthy, the options are somewhat limited.
Duffy, who made his second rehab start on Thursday night, could return at the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 9. Which means Junis may have one more start next week to make a case for a rotation spot until Karns returns.
The decision will come later. For now, the Royals will fly home to open a four-game series against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium. They will play one game on Friday night, two on Saturday, and another on Sunday. After sending out Junis and Strahm to face the Tigers here in Detroit, the Royals will turn back toward rotation anchor Jason Vargas in the series opener.
“We got Vargy going tomorrow,” Yost said. “So that’s good.”
For now, a 16-9 record in their last 25 games has altered the trajectory of a season and reinforced an organization’s instincts to go for it. On Thursday, though, a baseball game played more or less to its expected outcome.
One one side was Junis, a 24-year-old right-hander who surrendered six runs in six innings in his sixth major-league start. On the other side was Fulmer, also 24 and the reigning American League Rookie of the Year. Fulmer pitched like one of the most promising young arms in baseball, scattering four hits across eight scoreless innings before faltering, ever so slightly, in the ninth.
The Royals scored three times on three hits and an error, busting the shutout attempt and ending Fulmer’s day after 8 2/3 innings. Yet in moments, the bearded, burly right-hander was basically untouchable, complementing a fastball that touched 96 mph with a change-up and a slider.
“A lot of heaters,” Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain said.
“Electric fastball,” Yost said.
By the middle innings, Fulmer was dealing and Junis was grinding to give the Royals more innings, hoping to save the bullpen before four games in the next three days. In that sense, he accomplished something. In another, the Royals once again had to accept the inconsistencies of a young starter.
“You’re hoping that’s not the case,” Yost said. “But you know that’s quite a possibility.”