So here we are, on the heels of a wasted Sunday, seven days until the All-Star break, and the Royals now enter a rather precarious stretch before baseball’s midway point.
The situation, no doubt, is a little more fragile now, after the Royals suffered a 10-4 pounding at the hands of the Oakland A’s on Sunday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium. It was, in many respects, a forgettable July afternoon. The A’s offense nuked the Royals for 15 hits and three home runs. And starter Luis Mendoza couldn’t make it out of the second inning.
In and of itself, it was just another loss, of course, a rubber-match defeat against an A’s team that entered the weekend with 50 victories and in first place in the AL West. But in a big-picture sense, it was a little more painful.
The Royals finished a six-game homestand against Cleveland and Oakland — two winning clubs — with a 3-3 record. They remain six games behind division-leader Detroit. And here comes the hard part: The Royals, 41-44, finish the first half with four games against the Yankees in New York and three more at Cleveland, a critical juncture if they wish to remain within shouting distance of first place at the All-Star break.
“It’s not just these seven games,” said Royals designated hitter Billy Butler, who was zero for five Sunday. “Starting this home stand, we’re playing 20 straight games against teams above .500. So we’re 3-3. We had a chance to go 4-2 had a tough day, but we’re playing good baseball.”
The Royals’ second half will begin with a three-game series against Detroit and a four-game set against Baltimore. From a pessimistic standpoint, the next 14 games could be a success just by treading water against some of baseball’s best teams. From an optimistic view, the Royals have an opportunity to gain ground against two AL Central rivals.
“It’s a tough stretch,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “We’re gonna have to grind it out, we’re gonna have to keep playing hard and try to find a way to win some ballgames.”
So how does it happen? Start with starting pitching — specifically, the back-end of the rotation. If the Royals want better results in New York and Cleveland, they will require better starting pitching than Sunday, when Mendoza was raked for five runs and five hits in just 12/3 innings.
It was Mendoza’s shortest start starting appearance of the season — and the shortest since he was shelled for eight runs in 11/3 innings against the Angels on July 7, 2008. Mendoza was a struggling 24-year-old for the Texas Rangers then, and exactly five years later, here was another disaster.
“(There’s) a little of bit of concern there,” Yost said. “The problem that we’re running into — and I’d have to look into a little deeper — is that he threw all winter. He threw in the (World Baseball Classic). So in actuality, this is like he’s pitching in September.”
Mendoza wasn’t quite on board with Yost’s theory on Sunday. But the results suggest a pitcher trending in the wrong direction.
Mendoza has a 7.64 ERA in his last four starts, a 171/3-inning stretch that includes 12 strikeouts and 10 walks. His season ERA has crept to 4.87 from 4.08.
“My mind feels good,” Mendoza said. “Of course, my body maybe feels different. But I just want to do the job. Right now, I just feel bad to let my teammates down. Every game is important.”
The Royals struck back on a solo homer by George Kottaras in the bottom of the second. But A’s right-fielder Josh Reddick capped a white-hot weekend with a two-run blast to right field in the top of the third against Royals reliever Bruce Chen.
The homer pushed the Oakland lead to 7-1, and Reddick finished five for 12 with four extra-base hits in the three games.
Alex Gordon trimmed the lead to 7-2 with a solo shot, his ninth homer of the year, against A’s starter A.J. Griffin in the fifth. But Griffin survived the inning and improved to 7-6 while allowing just two earned runs in five innings.
The Royals squandered an opportunity in the sixth inning. After scoring one run on a Mike Moustakas double and loading the bases against relievers Jerry Blevins and former Royal Jesse Chavez, Gordon watched a third strike for the second out of the inning.
Second baseman Miguel Tejada beat Chavez to the bag on an infield chopper, an RBI single that cut the Oakland lead to 8-4. The play at first was bang-bang — maybe a questionable call — but Chavez’s argument became an afterthought when he ended the inning by retiring Eric Hosmer.
It became even more of a footnote when Oakland second baseman Eric Sogard jumped on reliever Will Smith with a two-run homer in the top of the seventh, pushing the A’s lead to 10-4.
The Royals began Sunday with a matinee lineup that included Eliot Johnson at shortstop, Kottaras at catcher and Tejada at second base for the second straight day. Yost wanted to give shortstop Alcides Escobar the second of two straight days off, and catcher Salvador Perez was nursing a bone and tissue bruise near his shin.
But Kansas City’s offense could not match the punch of Oakland, which blew the game open with a five-run outburst in the second, a rally that included six hits, a walk and the A’s sending 10 batters to the plate.
The wheels came off in a hurry.
And now comes four games at Yankee Stadium, with the Royals embarking on a pivotal stretch. The All-Star break, of course, may be an arbitrary midpoint in the season’ marathon grind. But with Jeremy Guthrie on the mound Monday night, the Royals will try to regain their momentum on the road.
“We just gotta be more consistent,” Hosmer said. “We just gotta go every day and put up some runs early. We’ve been having some games where we’ve been battling back, but I think we just gotta start jumping ahead and getting some leads.”