Vahe Gregorian

Rinse, lather, repeat: Royals’ Joakim Soria fails again in high-leverage situation

Royals reliever Joakim Soria looked out from the dugout after pitching in the eighth inning and giving up the lead against Oakland Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium.
Royals reliever Joakim Soria looked out from the dugout after pitching in the eighth inning and giving up the lead against Oakland Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium. jsleezer@kcstar.com

For a glimpse at the dilemma confounding Ned Yost in the matter of the fickle work of Joakim Soria, consider his abrupt response on Tuesday night when asked why he still has confidence in Soria.

This was moments after Soria’s seventh blown save of the season further disrupted a pivotal — if not last-gasp — home stand.

“I’ve got confidence in all my players; I mean, that’s just the way it is,” Yost said after the Royals’ 5-4 loss to Oakland at Kauffman Stadium. “If I don’t have confidence in a player, I’m not going to have him on this team.”

And therein was the essence of how Yost thinks, the trait of his that makes him a player’s manager able to inspire faith and devotion and get the best out of people he has demonstrated belief in before they knew they could do it themselves.

More than most people credit, this was a monumental factor in the Royals’ rise from the ashes to get to the last two World Series and, of course, win it all in 2015.

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But the otherwise rather admirable mindset that helped liberate the likes of Danny Duffy and Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas comes with an asterisk: a blind spot that makes it much harder than it should be for Yost to make personnel changes even when it’s absolutely obvious that someone is miscast.

Before he’ll make a substantial change, Yost will rationalize or defend or take the blame for a players’ lapses or gaffes or lack of production, and this is often much-appreciated in the clubhouse.

But this is boomeranging back at him.

To clarify, there have been many reasons why the Royals are on the outside looking in on the wild-card race and fading from improbable candidates to return to the playoffs to downright implausible ones:

From crucial season-ending injuries (Moustakas and Hochevar), to weeks and weeks and weeks of volatile starting pitching, to Alex Gordon’s muted production and an overall offense that has produced the second-fewest runs in the American League ... with Oakland last.

When the final forensics are taken of this season, those either will be the most significant data in why they fell short — or the ones that they can say they somehow overcame to make the playoffs.

But few of their issues have simply been a reflection of specific brow-furrowing decisions, particularly in the face of massive evidence that it’s just ... not working as in the case of Soria.

It’s as if every time Soria says “it wasn’t a bad pitch,” as he offered to the media again on Tuesday, Yost simply accepts that at face value.

OK, that’s not really true.

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But let’s venture this:

Yost has tried so hard to find reasons to still believe in Soria that he’s fooled himself into thinking he still can be consistently effective in high-leverage situations this season.

That’s the only way to account for what Yost said in Soria’s defense last week, when he suggested Soria’s third loss in eight days must have been from overuse.

So his working theory became that Soria struggles when he pitches on back-to-back days (4.26 ERA on the second day).

Trouble was, Soria’s ERA was even higher (4.57) when he pitched with one day of rest.

Now, Yost seemed to be onto something when it came to two and three days of rest:

In 18  1/3 innings in those scenarios, he had posted a 0.98 ERA with 25 strikeouts.

So three days after he’d fallen to 4-8 with the bungled save at Minnesota, Soria pitched a hitless inning and struck out two.

Then came three days after that ... Tuesday, and Soria simply couldn’t hold the lead in the eighth inning.

It’s true that Yost’s options were more limited than they might have appeared.

He explained that Wade Davis wasn’t available after being overworked over the weekend and said he wasn’t going to ask Kelvin Herrera to produce a four-out save again because it had taken him too long to recover when he did it a few weeks ago.

But never mind all that.

Because no matter how he explains it, Soria just shouldn’t have been such a prime option after all that’s preceded this.

But it was because in trying so hard to justify staying with Soria, Yost has focused on the wrong set of numbers for the former All-Star closer:

He entered the game having given up 20 earned runs in 18 innings in high-leverage situations; otherwise, he had given up eight earned runs in 44 innings.

Those situations just aren’t Soria’s groove any more, or at least not right now.

And even amid denying that he’s losing confidence, Soria allowed this: “It is tough to pretend nothing is happening, and it actually is happening.”

In some ways, Yost knows this, too: He acknowledges that he doesn’t know what he’s going to get from Soria on any given day.

But then he says this, too.

“I know a lot of people have lost confidence in Jack,” he said, “but I’m not one of those guys.”

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