The few feet of space surrounding Seattle catcher Mike Zunino on Thursday night must have felt like a wind tunnel, an energy source powered by the fruitless hacks of the Royals in a 1-0 loss.
A day after manager Ned Yost ventured his club was “starting to get our stride” on offense, they looked enfeebled at the hands of Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma. For eight tidy innings, a simple pattern emerged. Iwakuma pumped strikes. The Royals swung. Outs occurred.
Mistakes, the sort of pitches upon which the Royals (16-18) could inflict damage, “weren’t there to be found,” Yost said. Instead, his team fell on a night when Danny Duffy authored six quality innings, the offense brought little to the table and Yost himself committed a pair of questionable tactical decisions.
The first call from the bench, an intentional walk in the third inning, led to Seattle’s only run. The second maneuver, a sacrifice bunt in the ninth inning, issued a lifeline to erratic closer Fernando Rodney.
After Iwakuma departed, Rodney represented an opportunity. He issued a four-pitch walk to shortstop Alcides Escobar. He threw another ball to outfielder Nori Aoki. Then Aoki squared to bunt.
Asked afterward why the team didn’t force Rodney to prove he could throw a strike before gifting him an out, Yost appeared comfortable with the play. The goal of the at-bat was for Aoki to advance the runner, not to reach base, he explained.
“I want Nori to get the bunt down,” Yost said. “Because I want to take a shot at tying it. My ‘pen was strong enough where I felt like I could go ahead and go for the tie. Some nights you don’t. Some nights you play for the win.”
But the lack of production earlier in the night altered his approach. He hoped the core of his lineup could deliver. “Once you get the bunt down, you’ve got your No. 2, 3, 4 guys coming up, your run producers, to take a shot at it,” he said.
Except the group disappointed. After Hosmer accepted a walk, Rodney whiffed Butler with a changeup. In San Diego, Butler worried a three-game layoff would stunt his momentum. His fears came true on Friday: He went 0-for-4 with a double-play ball and two strikeouts.
“My timing was off,” Butler said. “I didn’t feel really well. I didn’t see the ball worth a crap tonight.”
When Salvador Perez tapped a grounder, the game was over. The power outage dashed a useful effort from Duffy (1-3, 1.96 ERA), the newest addition to the rotation. Duffy survived six innings and allowed just one run. That tally was decisive.
Duffy is not slated to start again until May 17. For now, Yost intends to shuffle him back into the bullpen. Bruce Chen is currently rehabilitating from a bulging disc in his lower back, and general manager Dayton Moore sounded pessimistic about Chen returning by then.
Even when Chen leaves the disabled list, it is unclear if he is a better option than Duffy, the erratic but capable 25-year-old lefty. In his last three starts, opposing offenses pounded 15 runs off Chen in 13 innings. During his two-start audition, Duffy allowed two runs in 10 frames.
“The first one, I was pretty erratic with my command,” Duffy said. “But this one, I felt pretty good about.”
Back-to-back victories in San Diego reduced the stress weighing on the club. A relaxed atmosphere took hold once more. About two hours before first pitch, more than a dozen Royals crowded around a black leather couch in front of a clubhouse television. They appeared enraptured by the NFL Draft.
For a few minutes, the clubhouse resembled living rooms across the country. The players traded barbs about their favorite teams. They debated the merits of Johnny Manziel. They groaned at the tears of Jadaveon Clowney, the first pick. As the broadcast slouched into its typical, interminable pace, the players gazed at the clock.
“Hurry up!” one shouted. “We’ve got stretch in 10 minutes.”
At last the group straggled onto the diamond. Duffy stayed behind. On the mound, he can be flaky. He opened Thursday’s game with six consecutive pitches outside the strike zone. But his first real danger arose in the third, when Zunino smoked a leadoff double.
Three batters later, Zunino stood at third. There were two outs. To the plate came Robinson Cano, Seattle’s $240 million offseason infusion of offensive credibility. Yost opted for a passive approach. He called for an intentional walk.
“I think he’s one of the top hitters in the American League,” Yost said. “You take your chances with Corey Hart, even though he’s a good hitter, too. But it didn’t work.”
So Cano, a left-handed batter, trotted to first base. Duffy squared off with Hart, a right-handed hitter. Hart slammed a slider up the middle to score the run. In his other two at-bats against Duffy, Cano lofted harmless fly balls. Still, Duffy did not disagree with the decision.
“Cano’s a great hitter,” Duffy said. “You don’t want to let him beat you.”
For Seattle, the lead was safe. After a nine-inning revival on Wednesday, the offense reverted to its usual moribund state. They attacked with little success against Iwakuma.
Iwakuma confounded big-league hitters during his first season as full-time starter in 2013. He missed this past April due to a strained middle finger. Thursday marked his second start of the season. He operates with a simple arsenal, mixing an upper 80s fastball with a splitter and a slider. He punished the right-handers with sliders and vexed the lefties with splitters.
“He didn’t,” Yost said, “make a bunch of mistakes.”