Sixteen minutes after the first pitch at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred popped out of the visiting dugout and walked to the mound. He sought to compose right-hander Brad Keller, who has been an encouraging standout on a pitching staff with the worst earned run average in the major leagues.
But on Friday, the unlikely standout simply blended in.
Arguably the most positive development in the first half of the Royals’ season endured its second consecutive setback Friday, Keller failing to make it out of the third inning of a 9-6 loss to the White Sox.
“I just felt off in the first inning,” Keller said, adding, “I feel like I’ve been trying to do too much instead of trusting it. That’s one thing Cal talked about — just go out there and trust it. Clearly it’s worked before so don’t try to do too much.”
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The sources of buoyancy have been rare, with this year’s Royals just 48 hours shy of the all-star break and on pace for the worst record in the franchise’s five-decade history.
On a night in which one of the few sources of positivity faltered, the offense tried to emerge in his place.
The Royals (26-67) trimmed a five-run deficit to one, and outfielder Jorge Bonifacio came within a couple of feet of completing a comeback, his eighth-inning shot falling into center fielder Charlie Tilson’s glove on the edge of the warning track. The flyout stranded Alcides Escobar and Whit Merrifield in scoring position as the tying and go-ahead runs. White Sox catcher Omar Narvaez rendered it moot in the ensuing half-inning, sending a two-run homer into the Royals’ bullpen.
“I think our offense has picked it up here in the last week,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “I’m feeling better about the at-bats that I’m seeing, the production that we’re getting out there. ... The offense is starting to really swing the bats better.”
A pair of former Royals factored into the line score — starter James Shields (4-10) securing the victory and closer Joakim Soria earning the save.
Keller, whose move to the rotation was met with immediate success, recorded only eight outs and allowed 11 runners to reach base. The sign of trouble arrived early, Keller walking the initial two hitters of the game. Eldred emerged from the first-base dugout only two batters later, with the deficit already three runs.
Six days ago, Keller’s first true hiccup as a major-league starter came in a loss to Boston, when he survived the initial four innings before allowing four runs in the fifth. The damage presented itself much earlier Friday — three runs in the first and two more in the third — but its cause was similar.
Command, caused by a hitch in the mechanics.
Keller walked four hitters, including leadoff man Yoan Moncada all three times he faced him. He has walked eight over his two-game slump, which was preceded by the best two outings of his rookie season.
“Just my typical cues to get through the ball, I wasn’t hitting right,” Keller said. “So I was just kinda leaking off to the left a little bit and pulling balls and balls were coming back over the middle of the plate.”
His early exit prompted the unexpected entrance of Heath Fillmyer. Yost had penciled Fillmyer in to start Sunday in place of Jakob Junis, who will be held out until after the all-star break with back inflammation. Fillmyer threw 56 pitches. Keller and Fillmyer combined to throw 107 pitches to complete four innings.
The outs were easier for Shields, once the centerpiece of a trade that concluded with him as the ace of the Kansas City rotation. The days of that arsenal have since passed, Shields yielding a 5.49 ERA in two-plus season in south Chicago. But he was mostly productive against the Royals’ lineup Friday. The Royals managed four runs off Shields, two of them unearned in the third inning after a botched double-play ball. An Alex Gordon double was the lone hit through five. Shields struck out seven.