Royals reliever Louis Coleman’s fourth-inning appearance Friday required only 11 pitches. He needed no more to allow this 10-1 loss to Minnesota to degenerate into a laugher.
Two of Coleman’s offerings were wild pitches. Six were balls. The ninth pitch was turned into a two-run single by Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe. You can say this for Coleman: If he was not effective, he was at least efficient.
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It was Coleman’s first appearance of the season. In 2013, he did not allow an earned run until his 19th game. He can start a new scoreless streak on Saturday — if manager Ned Yost trusts him.
On the first day of camp this spring, Coleman sprained his right middle finger and endured a bone bruise. He began the year on the disabled list. Yost worried Coleman’s injury would warp his command. His fear seemed justified Friday, even if Coleman insisted his finger wasn’t an issue.
“I hadn’t been out there in a while,” Coleman said. “I could throw the slider for a strike. I had to throw fastballs in hitters counts. Baseball, that’s what happened.”
Coleman entered in the midst of a jam. For that, the Royals can thank Bruce Chen. He turned in the Royals’ worst performance from a starting pitcher this season. He was charged with six runs in 3 2/3 innings; Coleman inherited two runners and let both score. In the seventh, rookie reliever Michael Mariot allowed two runs in his big-league debut.
“I take pride in every time I go out there I give my team a chance to win,” Chen said. “Today I didn’t do that.”
Facing a sizable deficit, the offense folded. Royals hitters offered little resistance against right-hander Kyle Gibson, who posted a 6.53 ERA in 10 starts last season. Kansas City’s only run resulted from a botched Twins double play. On the first night of a nine-game stretch against dreck like Minnesota and Houston, the Royals stumbled.
In his 2014 debut earlier this week, Chen was surgical. He allowed a lone, unearned run in 6 1/3 innings against the White Sox. Team officials raved about his command and movement.
A different pitcher appeared Friday night. Chen squandered his advantage four batters into the bottom of the first. He yielded a two-out double to third baseman Trevor Plouffe. Next, outfielder Chris Colabello chopped a changeup up the middle. Alcides Escobar lunged to his left, but the baseball ticked off his glove for an RBI single.
The lead was lost, and soon the Royals were working from a deficit. Chen left a changeup over the plate for outfielder Jason Kubel. He crushed a drive to the wall in right. Nori Aoki stretched his 5-foot-9 frame to its apex. The baseball connected with the webbing of his glove, bounced out and back into Aoki’s bare hand.
The umpires ruled it a hit, an RBI triple. Manager Ned Yost considered challenging the play. He decided against it. The replay showed the baseball had struck the wall not once but twice.
Chen survived the second and the third, but there were harbingers of his eventual demise. He needed nine pitches to handle light-hitting catcher Kurt Suzuki, and walked the No. 9 hitter, Pedro Florimon. After three innings, his pitch count had swollen to 66.
“He just wasn’t sharp,” Yost said. “He wasn’t sharp. And when he’s not sharp, the result, generally, is high pitch counts. And that’s exactly what happened.”
His count ended at 87. Chen saw a hanging changeup detonated into the second deck by designated hitter Josmil Pinto. After Joe Mauer stroked an RBI single, Chen was done. In came Coleman. The game spiraled downward soon after.
“It was his first time out this year,” Yost said. “Probably a little rusty.”