The decisive pitch in Sunday’s 2-1 Royals loss, their fourth in a row, was an 86-mph curveball tumbling out of Yordano Ventura’s right hand. The pitch broke high in the strike zone, near the waist of Seattle catcher Mike Zunino.
An antagonist all weekend at Kauffman Stadium, Zunino played his role with aplomb on Sunday, crushing a solo home run to break a deadlock and place Seattle ahead.
“He hung it,” manager Ned Yost said as his face broke into a smile, unable to hide how hittable the pitch was. “He hung that ball pretty good.”
This blow proved decisive, so thin was the Royals’ margin for error. Seattle spoiled a fine effort from Ventura and exited this ballpark with a sweep. They also exposed the depth of their hosts’ recent offensive disappearance. In three of these four losses, the Royals (39-36) have scored only one run.
On Sunday, the lineup proved fodder for left-hander Roenis Elias. They did not produce an extra-base hit. They went hitless on five at-bats with runners in scoring positions. Opportunities evaporated at the hands thanks to poor at-bats, mistakes on the bases, and, yes, a reversal of the fortune that shined on them so recently.
The lineup’s vanishing act has occurred at an unfortunate time. The Dodgers jet into town this week, and will roll out a pair of aces, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, during the first two games. “Elite pitchers,” Yost called them, a class to which Elias does not belong, even if, on Sunday, the Royals allowed him to bask in that sort of glow.
A 10-game winning streak snapped on Thursday, and a new, more odious streak began. The Royals released their hold on first place in the American League Central. To watch the scoreboard in June is a heedless waste of energy, but the descent has still stunted the progress of this club. Yost framed the recent downturn as a brief blip during the course of the season’s marathon.
“The ups are near as satisfying as the downs,” Yost said. “A four-game losing streak, right when you put together a nice, 10-game winning streak, is tough. But you come back tomorrow, and battle through it.”
Added designated hitter Billy Butler: “We could have won all four of those games that we just lost.”
When a reporter queried Lorenzo Cain about the recent skid, Jarrod Dyson shook his head as he walked past. “We could be in a worse situation than this,” he said. Cain offered a less defiant take.
“We were really hot,” Cain said. “That just shows you: You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. This is one game that will humble you, in a heartbeat.”
The first inning felt instructive: Lorenzo Cain — finally moved into the leadoff spot, if only via injury to Nori Aoki — coaxed a six-pitch walk. The subsequent trio of Omar Infante, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler saw four pitches combined. All flied out.
In the second inning, the Royals captured their first lead of this series. Alex Gordon generated the run. He singled by lining a fastball into right. After a single by Salvador Perez, Gordon showed little fear for the arm of center fielder James Jones. He took third on a flyout by Danny Valencia, and scored on an even shallower flyball struck by Justin Maxwell.
It was the sort of situation in which the Royals were able to break free during the winning streak. Brought back down to Earth, they settled for a lone run.
Gordon would have had a chance to bat again in the third. With two outs, Butler dumped a hit into right. As Endy Chavez corralled the ball, which rolled toward the wall in foul territory, Butler tried to take second base. He was thrown out by several steps.
“I took a chance,” Butler said. “We had the lead. Tried to get on second, [so I could] score on one hit, instead of two.”
The Royals would not actually place a runner on second base until the seventh. By then, the lead was gone. Willie Bloomquist flicked an RBI double to score Zunino in the fifth. Two frames later, Zunino was the leadoff man.
Ventura felt confident in his curveball. He notched six strikeouts on Sunday, four of them with the bender. Zunino did not meet a similar fate.
“He put a good swing,” said Bruce Chen, who translated for Ventura. “And he was able to hit it out.”
The Royals never rebounded. They stranded the tying runner at second in the seventh, after a replay challenge by Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon erased a one-out single by Pedro Ciriaco. With a man at second again in the eighth, Eric Hosmer and Butler both lined out.
“Either one of those drop, it’s a different ball game,” Butler said.
During a 10-game winning streak, those players who believe in the superstitious say, those balls find holes. During a losing streak, the opposite outcome occurs. The Royals rode the first wave through the opening of June. As this month heads toward a close, they must absorb the countervailing effect.
“It’s a long year,” Cain said. “We can get hot again.”