This was like crossing Dickens with baseball on a Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium: a mismatch that many expected but few expected. (And, really, how often do you see English Lit linked to the national pastime?)
Think that’s weak? You should have watched what the Royals mustered against rookie lefty Andrew Albers in a 7-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins.
Here was a pitching match-up — a tale of two pitchers? (yes, last one) — that saw the red-hot Royals sending their ace, James Shields, out to face a 27-year-old in his major-league debut.
Well, the Twins simply battered Shields while coasting to an easy victory behind a magnificent performance from Albers over 81/3 innings. He exited after yielding a single and a walk in the ninth.
Casey Fien immediately loaded the bases by walking Billy Butler before ending the game when Alex Gordon grounded into a double play. The Royals lost for just the second time in their last 14 games.
“I know stuff like this happens,” Butler said. “Confidence isn’t going anywhere in here. You face a guy for the first time you’ve got to tip your hat to him. It’s his debut. He made his pitches.
“You don’t see that out of Juego (Shields) usually either. It was just bad night. You knew one of these was coming eventually. I think the telltale on this one is to see how we bounce back from this (on Wednesday).”
Shields, 6-8, gave up seven runs in six innings in what easily marked his worst start of the year. He surrendered three homers — including two in the first inning — committed a throwing error on a pickoff and balked home a run.
“Nothing went right,” he said. “But on the flip side, you’ve got a young kid on the other side who pitched a phenomenal game.
“Overall, he did a pretty good job tonight of handling our bats, especially the way we swung it (Monday). Sometimes, those games are going to happen. Hopefully, we’ll move on and get a win (Wednesday).”
This was a clunker of the first order and perhaps, as Butler suggested, it was long overdue. Their only loss in their previous 13 games came Friday in extra innings against the Mets in New York.
Still this was, ah, unexpected.
The Royals offered little more than token resistance against Albers, a Canadian promoted last Friday from Class AAA Rochester, where he was 9-4 with a 3.11 ERA in 22 starts.
“It was special, no question,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words, but it was special. To be able to go out and have that kind of performance in your debut, unfortunately it’s probably not going to get much better from there.
“So I’m really going to enjoy this high and really enjoy tonight.”
San Diego selected Albers in the 10th round of the 2008 draft, but he underwent Tommy John surgery the following year and was pitching in an independent league when the Twins found him in March 2011.
It all led to this.
Albers allowed a one-out single in the first to Eric Hosmer but then induced a double-play grounder from Butler. The Royals didn’t get another base-runner until Alcides Escobar’s two-out single in the sixth.
Hosmer got another single in the eighth before Escobar opened the ninth with a single. A one-out walk to Hosmer ended Albers’ night at 109 pitches.
“He had them completely off-balance all night long,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I did not want to take him out. I thought he was out of gas there at the end. Wow, that was fun to watch.
“Your first night in the big leagues. To do what he did against a team that’s red hot like that was pretty special for us. We needed it desperately.”
The loss dropped the Royals to 57-53 and left them 8 1/2 games behind first-place Detroit in the American League Central Division. They started the day trailing Texas by four games for the final AL wild-card spot.
Shields has been a tough-luck pitcher for much of the season, but he entered Tuesday coming off victories in successive starts for the first time all year. Even so, it was clear from the start that he didn’t have it.
Shields surrendered homers in the first inning to Brian Dozier and Justin Morneau, which staked Albers to a three-run lead before he threw a pitch.
“When you go 3-2 on the first hitter (Dozier),” Shields said, “and he hits a home run, and then you give up three runs in the first inning, that’s a terrible job by me.”
It didn’t stop there.
The Twins added single runs in the second and fourth (on a Chris Colabello homer) before striking for two in the sixth inning. Shields’ final line showed seven runs and eight hits in 110 pitches over six innings.
“He just had trouble getting the ball down consistently,” manager Ned Yost said. “Command was the issue most of the night for him. He didn’t get in jams today. The home run ball killed him.”
Yost chose to ride Shields through six innings in the rout before calling on lefty Will Smith, who retired nine in a row over the final three innings.
That extended outing likely means Smith will be optioned to Class AAA Omaha to make room Wednesday for lefty Danny Duffy, who will start the series finale in place of Wade Davis, who remains on family leave.