When a team plays a first half like the Royals did, staggering to a record 31 games under .500, you try to mine the roster for positives.
And the one component that continues to impress as the All-Star break approaches is rookie pitcher Brad Keller, the Royals' 22-year-old Rule 5 acquisition.
He’d been a revelation in the Royals’ bullpen, posting a 2.01 ERA in 22 1/3 innings while allowing a .207 average, and has continued to demonstrate poise since moving to the rotation at the end of May.
You could see it last Monday, when he won his first game as a starter by holding the Angels to two hits across seven scoreless innings at Kauffman Stadium.
Even as he was out-dueld in a 1-0 loss to the Mariners at Safeco Field, you could see it on Sunday afternoon, too. Keller allowed one run and six hits in a career-high eight innings. The only lasting damage was done in the second when Kyle Seager poked a single down the right-field line and scored on Ben Gamel's broken-bat blooper to center field.
Otherwise, Keller did what he does best. He effectively managed his pitch count, only arriving at his total of 102 as he induced a ground-out from Jean Segura, the Mariners' final batter of the game. He pounded the strike zone with a sinking fastball that hovered around 94 mph and produced ground ball outs all over the left side of the diamond.
One of them ended the Mariners' second-inning threat after Gamel's hit, which was the third straight allowed by Keller in the frame. Mike Zunino chopped a ball right to Mike Moustakas, who snared it, stepped on his bag and fired a strike into Hunter Dozier's glove at first base.
"That’s what you look for," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "You look for pitchers that can get ground balls. That’s important. Our park, we’ve kind of built it around fly ball pitchers because it’s a big park. But he’s a very strong ground-ball type and that’s exactly what you look for. That’s what you want."
Although he only struck out three Mariners, Keller didn't issue a walk for the first time since joining the rotation.
"(This start) felt good. Tough lineup," said Keller, who in six starts has posted a 2.14 ERA (eight runs in 33 2/3 innings). "A lot of good hitters over there. I just tried to stay on the attack, trying not to fall behind too much and really go at ’em."
But Keller couldn't reap the benefits of his third consecutive quality start.
Still foundering after the .193 batting average they posted in June, the Royals' offense was easily throttled by Mariners starter James Paxton. Whit Merrifield and Salvador Perez got the only hits off the 29-year-old left-hander, who also issued a walk each to Jorge Bonifacio and Drew Butera and struck out 11 batters.
Not once did the Royals reach third base as they ended their road trip having lost three in a row. The Royals (25-58) return to Kauffman Stadium to face the American League Central division-leading Indians at 7:15 p.m. Monday.
"He was more than we can bear," Yost said.