The temporary second baseman sprawled across the dirt as the game trickled away. In the ninth inning of a deadlocked pitchers’ duel, Danny Valencia dived in vain, unable to snag a ground-ball single that cost the Royals in a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay.
On a day the Royals gambled by playing without a regular second baseman, they saw the game-winning hit shoot past the replacement.
“That’s a tough play,” manager Ned Yost said. “A tough play for any second baseman there.”
Valencia is not any second baseman. He learned the position this spring, in part as a contingency plan for an emergency like the one that occurred when Omar Infante absorbed a fastball in his jaw on Monday. That kept Infante out of action Tuesday, and Valencia was pressed into duty.
“Obviously, I would have loved to make that play at the end,” Valencia said. “What am I supposed to do? I dove for it. There’s nothing really else to it.”
Infante rejoined the Royals on Tuesday after a battery of tests overnight at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
He suffered a sprained jaw and what the team dubbed a “non-concussive head injury.” Infante required six stitches to repair a laceration on the left side of his chin.
The team’s training staff and medical staff informed Yost they do not believe Infante will require a stint on the 15-day disabled list.
Even so, the team has not ruled out recalling an additional infielder. Both Christian Colon and Johnny Giavotella are under consideration. Giavotella was held out of Tuesday night’s game in Class AAA Omaha.
On Tuesday, the final moments obscured both the joys and the frustrations of earlier in the evening.
The Royals squandered a sparkling debut start from rookie Yordano Ventura, who struck out six in six scoreless innings. They loaded the bases three times, and came away empty on each occasion.
In the ninth, the winning run scored with a simple but painful recipe. Third baseman Mike Moustakas fumbled a grounder into an infield single. Greg Holland lost control of a slider for a wild pitch. Then, Rays first baseman James Loney stroked a grounder past Valencia.
The rally began with former Royals prospect Wil Myers. Ventura had already struck him out three times. Now he faced Holland, the All-Star closer.
Myers chopped a grounder toward the left side of the infield. Both Moustakas and shortstop Alcides Escobar charged forward. Moustakas swooped in front of Escobar — which was the correct play, Yost said, as Moustakas’ angle on the throw to first was better. Except Moustakas fumbled the transfer and never made a throw.
“I should have had that play,” Moustakas said.
Holland refused to complain about the result. His job is to remove himself from such situations.
“That’s kind of what you’re looking for, a softly hit ball,” Holland said. “But that’s not the first time someone’s hit one softly and been on first. Those things happen, and you’ve got to deal with them.”
Holland came close to departing unscathed. But with two outs, he spun a slider into the dirt against Loney. The ball bounced and nearly rolled into the Rays dugout. Myers moved to second base.
Loney is a left-handed batter. Valencia played him to pull the ball toward the first-base side. Instead, Loney roped a 3-2 pitch closer to the middle.
As Valencia broke for the ball, he considered it unlikely he could make a throw for the final out. He only hoped to smother the ball and hold Myers at third. Instead, he could only push himself out of the dirt as Myers rounded third.
Inside the clubhouse afterward, Valencia ran through the scenarios in his head. He wondered if his positioning could have been different. But that would have contradicted the scouting report.
Either way, any second baseman would have struggled to knock down the baseball. Especially a novice.
“How tough of a play (was it)?” Valencia said. “I mean, I couldn’t get to it.”