The most frustrated Royals clubhouse of the season fills with all of the contradicting emotions you would expect from a group with a champion’s past and an also-ran’s present. Mostly, silence. Some guys smile and joke with a teammate’s young son. A few f-bombs are screamed.
Belief persists in this room, because four weeks remain and they have pulled off the impossible so many times before. But that belief is now strained past the point of reality for many fans, and tested harder in this room than they are comfortable with.
They lost to the Tigers 6-5, a horror show plot on an otherwise beautiful Sunday afternoon that left them four games out and behind four teams for the second wild card spot. The man who will take the most blame is standing in front of his locker, having given up another lead, turning what should have been an inspiring comeback into the hardest kick in the junk this group has taken in quite some time.
“Sometimes you have to tip your cap to the hitter,” reliever Joakim Soria says. “It was a really good pitch that he was able to hit it out of the ballpark, and to center field. That’s tough to do.”
Those words will drive adults across Kansas City bonkers, the $25 million setup man blowing one more lead and saying one more time that he was beat on a good pitch. How many times has this happened?
Soria has been among the Royals’ biggest underperformers. He’ll wear a disproportionate amount of blame if the Royals miss the playoffs. He has pitched in 60 games, given up runs in 15, and given up leads or broken ties in 10. The Royals have lost seven of those games.
No relievers are perfect, we all tend to remember their failures much more than their successes, and Soria has run into some bad luck at times. But if the (honest) disclaimers are out of the way he’s also been bad. They can’t all be good pitches, if they keep getting hit so hard. FanGraphs tracks what it calls Shutdowns and Meltdowns for relief pitchers, and only the White Sox’s Matt Albers has more than Soria’s 14 Meltdowns. Albers is not being trusted with the eighth inning of games in a playoff race.
The pitch that Soria lost this one with was a 94 mph fastball, on the inside part of the plate, that tailed down as it approached. It wasn’t 12 inches off the ground, like manager Ned Yost said in defending his player, but it also, well, here come more screams — it wasn’t a bad pitch.
“It was a matter of inches,” Yost says. “And inches didn’t work in our favor.”
This was a brutal loss, finishing a brutal homestand. The Royals have been so good here, but against two teams they are competing with for a playoff spot lost four of six, blowing chances in each loss.
They lost in the 10th, then in the 13th, then in the ninth and now this one in the eighth. They welcomed Wade Davis back, and then watched him blow a save on Saturday. They made a four-run rally in the seventh on Sunday — sort of a Game 4 in Houston starters kit — and then watched Soria give it up in the eighth.
The what-ifs from this one are particularly painful. Matt Strahm might’ve gotten through the eighth, but the Royals are protecting his arm so he was unavailable after warming up three times on Saturday. Davis would’ve been available, but had to pitch a second straight night on Saturday after Brooks Pounders gave up a home run and single in the ninth.
Yost could’ve used Kelvin Herrera against the Tigers’ best hitters in the eighth — he pledged to do something similar early in the season with Herrera and Soria — but Soria managed a similar spot in the seventh the night before.
The Royals have shown themselves to be baseball’s hardest team to kill, but an already unlikely playoff run is now being stretched too close to miracle. The fading hope is in the schedule.
The Royals play Monday in Minnesota, the first of 14 straight against non-contenders — the Twins and White Sox on the road, and then the A’s and White Sox at home. They have won 20 of 25 against the Twins and White Sox this year, and a run of 11-3 or so would likely shave a bit off their deficit. That’s a big ask in the big leagues, no matter the competition.
The aggravating part is in the details of the weekend, and the homestand. These are games the Royals have grown used to winning, grown to expect to winning. They have enormous rings at home and incredible memories in their minds because they’ve won so many of these games, in ballparks across the country, from Anaheim to Baltimore to New York.
Over the last week, in a ballpark they have dominated, they weren’t that team when they needed to be that team. That’s the part that hurts the most. They still have time for a miracle, but not as much time as before this weekend.