Santana can’t hold three-run lead as Royals lose 8-4 to Yankees

The quickest way for any pitcher to court disaster — maybe here, at Yankee Stadium, more than anywhere — is to start issuing walks. (Sure, it’s a cliche; but, hey, there’s a reason cliches become cliches.)

Reasons like this: Royals starter Ervin Santana, nursing a one-run lead, walked the bases loaded Thursday afternoon in the fifth inning...and it was like — ah, let’s say — spitting into the wind.

New York scored four times — on three straight two-out singles after loading the bases — and rolled to an 8-4 victory that forced the Royals to settle for a split in the four-game series after winning the first two games.

“It’s kind of frustrating, yeah,” Santana acknowledged. “Every time we get four runs, it’s my job to keep the lead. So this is my fault today.”

Put this on the Royals’ list for consideration as the most disappointing loss of the season. Maybe at the top.

“It’s still nice to split a series here,” left fielder Alex Gordon said, “but we had an opportunity to win the series. We just didn’t get it done.”

The Royals peppered Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte, a longtime nemesis, for three runs in the first inning. And after New York answered with a run in the first, the Royals canceled that by scoring once in the second.

Santana, 5-6, just couldn’t hold it.

“They weren’t scorching balls early,” manager Ned Yost said. “The fifth inning was the one. You get two outs...You’ve got two outs, you keep expecting him to make a pitch and get out of it.”

Santana failed for the first time this season to complete six innings — he went five-plus — and yielded a season-worst eight runs while his ERA spiked from 2.90 to 3.37.

Perhaps this was no surprise.

Santana has now lost seven straight decisions at Yankee Stadium. The previous six occurred while pitching for the Angels. He is winless overall in his last 10 starts against the Yankees while compiling a 7.28 ERA.

“I don’t think that way,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where I pitch. I just go out there and do my best.”

The Royals led 4-3 with one out in the fifth when Ichiro Suzuki drew a four-pitch walk with one out. He stole second and went to third on Derek Jeter’s grounder to second.

Johnny Giavotella saved a run by making a diving stop to his left to get Jeter’s grounder and turn it into an out.

The reprieve was temporary.

After an intentional walk to Robinson Cano — understandable; Cano turned Wednesday’s game with a three-run homer when the Royals opted against a walk — Santana loaded the bases by walking Vernon Wells.

“After I got the first out,” Santana said, “I don’t know what happened. It was ball one, ball two, ball three, ball four. I took a deep breath and tried to find it. But I didn’t find it.”

Lyle Overbay lashed a two-run single to right, and the Yankees led 5-4. Zoilo Almonte’s single to left added another run.

Eduardo Nunez made it 7-4 with a single into center, although Lorenzo Cain ended the inning, after the run scored, by throwing out Almonte at third.

Santana returned for the sixth but not for long. Singles by Luis Cruz and Austin Romine put runners at first and second with no outs and finished Santana.

Suzuki’s sacrifice bunt against Tim Collins moved the runners to second and third and prompted the Royals to shorten their infield.

They got what they wanted when Jeter hit a sharp grounder to shortstop Alcides Escobar, but Escobar bobbled the ball before settling for the out at first as Cruz scored for an 8-4 lead.

That’s how it ended.

The loss dropped the Royals to 43-46 and means they must sweep a three-game weekend series in Cleveland to get back to .500 by the All-Star break.

“Coming in here and winning the first two games…,” Yost said. “Last night (Wednesday’s 8-1 loss) was last night. It was one of those games, but I feel we definitely had a chance to win this game — especially with a lead.

“It just didn’t happen.”

Pettitte, 7-6, gave up four runs and eight hits while lasting just 5 2/3 innings but boosted his career record against the Royals to 16-3 in 26 games. Shawn Kelley, David Robertson and Boone Logan closed out the victory.

“You know Pettitte,” Gordon said. “He’s an experienced pitcher. It would have been good to keep the gas pedal on him because he’s not going to panic. Like a veteran does, he responded.”

It all looked good early.

The Royals jumped Pettitte for three quick runs after Gordon opened the game with a single. Escobar followed with a bunt single to first before Eric Hosmer’s chopper resulted in a force at second.

A four-pitch walk to Billy Butler loaded the bases before Salvy Perez pulled a two-run double past third. Cain made it 3-0 with a sacrifice fly to center.

The Yankees got one run back in their first after Jeter, in his first at-bat of the season, reached on a one-out squib single to third. Miguel Tejada couldn’t come up with the necessary barehanded pickup.

Jeter went to third on Cano’s hopper up the middle and scored on Wells’ sacrifice fly to right field.

The Royals answered immediately after David Lough reached second with one out in the second inning. He bunted for a single and advanced when Pettitte threw wild to first. It was the first of Lough’s three hits.

Pettitte struck out Gordon, but Escobar flicked a two-out single into right for a 4-1 lead.

Again, Santana couldn’t follow up with a clean inning.

Nunez reached on a one-out infield single in the New York second, went to second on a wild pitch and scored on Romine’s two-out double to right.

Suzuki’s single past first scored Romine and cut the lead to 4-3 before Jeter grounded out to third.

It stayed 4-3 until the fifth.

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