During the season, the Royals hit .269 as a team, a healthy percentage that ranked second in baseball.
But in pressure situations they were even better.
With two outs and runners in scoring position, the team batting average jumped to .277, some 34 points higher than the American League average. Three Royals — Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales and Eric Hosmer — ranked among the top eight in that category.
That skill failed the Royals on Sunday in their 4-2 loss to the Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.
On a day in which the approach to Astros’ starter Dallas Keuchel was superb at times by showing patience when required and jumping on pitches when he made a mistake, the Royals could not finish innings that started with promise.
They went zero for seven with runners in scoring position.
“At times with runners in scoring position we probably swung as some balls that probably wouldn’t have been called strikes,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
Not capitalizing in the fourth and fifth innings proved to be decisive.
Cain led off the fourth with a moon-shot home run, and the Royals seemed poised for a big inning when Morales drove a ball between Luis Valbuena’s legs at third. A wild pitch sent Morales to second with one out.
But the inning died after Mike Moustakas’s grounder sent Morales to third, Salvador Perez walked and Alex Gordon popped out to shallow left.
Two Royals reached in the fifth with two outs. Ben Zobrist doubled, and Cain was intentionally walked. But Keuchel got Hosmer to chase strike three out of the strike zone.
When he found himself in a spot of trouble, Keuchel seemed to bear down.
It happened again the sixth after Moustakas doubled — Gordon struck out to end the inning — and the seventh, when Alex Rios walked, moved to second on a ground-out, went to third on a sacrifice by Zobrist and was stranded when Cain struck out.
“I’d say (Keuchel) was tough the whole time,” Rios said. “We got some hits early, but he was still very tough and hit his spots and managed the strike zone very well.”
The Royals faced Keuchel twice during the season. He shut down the Royals at Minute Maid Park, but the Royals got to him early with aggressive approaches in a victory at Kauffman Stadium. When Alcides Escobar opened the game by legging out an infield single, that appeared to be the Royals’ plan once again.
But there were also smart plate appearances. Perez and Rios laid off full-count pitches for walks. This from players who combined for 28 free passes during the season.
The Royals got base runners Sunday, but they couldn’t finish. The other scoring inning played out like the previous one. Gordon led off the ninth with a home run against closer Luke Gregerson, and with one out, Escobar singled to left. Twice the tying run came to the plate.
But Zobrist hit into a force out and Cain ended the game by striking out on a slider.
It didn’t matter who pitched, the Royals never came up with the big moment with runners on base. But ultimately, Yost tipped his cap to Keuchel, the lefty who went 15-0 at Minute Maid Park this season and now has won his first playoff game here.
“He has good movement and that’s what good movement does,” Yost said. “He moves location in and out, changes speeds. I think he should be the Cy Young winner this year.”