The difference between a tie baseball game in the top of the ninth and another frustrating loss was a ground ball down the third base line.
In the moments after the game, Royals manager Ned Yost sat inside his office at Safeco Field and was convinced it was fair, that Salvador Perez should have knotted the game with a two-out base hit down the line, that Eric Hosmer should have sprinted home from second base and pushed the game into the Seattle night.
The ball was not called fair. Third base umpire Clint Fagan threw his hands in the air and signaled foul. One pitch later, the game was over when Perez clubbed a drive to deep center that was chased down by Mariners center fielder Leonys Martin. As he snared a game-saving grab at the warning track, Martin crashed into the center field wall. Mariners reliever Steve Cishek could exhale. The Royals could lament another night of missed opportunities.
Thy fell 1-0 to the Mariners in a series opener at Safeco Field, losing their fourth straight on a road trip to the West coast. In the moments after the final out, the call at third base still rankled those inside the visitors’ clubhouse.
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"It’s definitely a fair ball," said Hosmer, who had watched a replay on a clubhouse monitor in the moments after the game.
“It’s really hard to see from our angle," Yost said, "but you go back and look at replay, and the ball probably was fair.”
The call was not reviewable, according Major League Baseball replay rules. For another night, the Royals could not secure a clutch hit. The skid continued on a chilly Friday in Seattle, a dormant offense no match for Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who twirled 7 2/3 scoreless innings and lowered his ERA to 1.38.
The Royals continued their most frustrating streak of this young baseball season, finishing 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position. Dating back to Tuesday night in Anaheim, they have sent 22 batters to the plate with runners in scoring position. None has come up with a hit or RBI.
“The telling number," Yost said. "We’re like ‘oh’ for our last 22 with runners in scoring position. We just can’t find a way to get a timely hit.”
The Royals outhit the Mariners 6 to 1. The one made the difference. Mariners right fielder Seth Smith slugged a solo homer off starter Kris Medlen in the bottom of the sixth inning. The 1-0 score line held up as the scuffling Royals offense was shut out for the first time since losing 2-0 to the New York Mets on April 5.
When it was over, the Royals, 12-10, had lost four in a row for the first time since early September of last year. They are now 4-8 in their last 12 after starting the season 8-2.
"Sometimes you have to make your own breaks, but we’re getting calls going against us that aren’t helping," Yost said. "We’re just not producing with runners in scoring position right now."
Yost was alluding to the call at third base, but there was also a 3-1 fastball to designated hitter Kendrys Morales in the ninth. Hosmer had led off the inning with a sharp single to center field. Morales followed, running the count to 3-1 before taking a fastball that some inside the Royals’ clubhouse believed was close to being ball four.
The pitch was called a strike, and Cishek struck out Morales on a 3-2 slider.
Hosmer stole second on the pitch, but Alex Gordon followed by striking out before Cishek retired Perez to end the game. But not before he sent a hard shot that, according to replays, appeared to skip over the third-base bag.
"There’s no way around it, it’s frustrating," Hosmer said. "You want the call to be right."
Twenty-four hours after a day off on Thursday, the Royals had entered the series opener here in Seattle batting just .214 with runners in scoring position in 21 games. In a 4-2 loss to the Angels on Wednesday, they had finished 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position. On Friday, they surpassed that mark in the eighth inning, squandering a final chance to get to Hernandez.
As Hernandez’s pitch count exceeded 100 pitches, Alcides Escobar dropped a single into right field and stole second base with one out. Mike Moustakas worked the count full before hitting a fly ball to right field. Hernandez retired his final out on pitch No. 115.
Up stepped center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who had singled twice in the game. He grounded out to second against right-handed reliever Nick Vincent.
Medlen had taken a no-hitter into the sixth inning. He’d thrown 88 pitches and navigated around a slew of walks. His command had disappeared for stretches during the early innings, but in five innings, he had not surrendered a hit. He lost the no-no — and the shutout — on an 85 mph changeup that ended up in the seats in right field.
Smith hit a towering drive to deep right. It barely eluded the reach of Royals right fielder Jarrod Dyson, who leapt at the wall and came down without the baseball.
"I threw one bad pitch that Seth hit out," Medlen said. "And that was the difference in the game when you’re going against somebody as good as Felix."
Medlen lasted two more batters and recorded one more out. He departed after allowing one run on one hit and five walks in 5 1/3 innings. His pitch count reached 103 pitches.
Medlen had maneuvered through a jam in the first inning after opening the game with walks to Nori Aoki and Smith. Facing the heart of the Mariners lineup, he coaxed a fly ball from Robinson Cano and a ground ball from Nelson Cruz. With runners at second and third, he finished the inning by retiring first baseman Adam Lind on a grounder to second.
For the next four innings, Medlen dueled with Hernandez. He worked around another two walks in the second. He recorded perfect innings in the third, fourth and fifth. His pitch count soared quickly, but in most ways, he rebounded from his last start, when he allowed seven runs in 3 2/3 innings in a loss to Baltimore.
"I’m sitting there watching Felix," Medlen said afterward, "and I’m just kind of like, ‘I don’t throw anything like him, but he’s having some success, and he’s staying closed,’ so I made an adjustment just by watching him.
"I went out there for that third inning, and from there, I just felt smoother, and more confident."
Medlen would allow just one hit. The Royals’ bullpen would offer 2 2/3 hitless innings. And yet, it was not enough. The Royals’ offense could not solve Hernandez. For another night, a breakthrough moment proved elusive.
"If they make any mistakes on the other end, you got to take advantage of it, and it just didn’t happen for us tonight," Hosmer said. "That’s why he’s King Felix. He threw a great game."