Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: With thin margin for error, Royals can’t afford Kelvin Herrera’s slump

From 2014 through 2016, Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera was an overwhelming force in a role that was crucial but subordinate — at least in the sense of not being the team’s formal closer even when he filled the role.

In that span, Herrera gave up 54 earned runs in 211 2/3 innings, highlighted by a 1.41 ERA and no home runs surrendered in 2014.

For that matter, he gave up just 11 home runs total in those three seasons.

Anointed the closer this year after Wade Davis was traded, Herrera suddenly has given up seven home runs in 24 1/3 innings the last of which he surrendered in a brutal ninth-inning performance on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium as the Royals lost 6-1 to the Astros.

So it’s tempting to correlate the role change with diminished results that have left him with a gaudy 5.55 ERA after he gave up four runs in Thursday’s game that was 1-1 when he entered in the ninth inning.

The numbers, though, tell a different story than you might think — even if it’s partly semantics.

In actual save situations, technically the toughest part of the job description, Herrera has come through 13 of 15 times with a 3.00 ERA — including 1.38 in the successful ones.

In non-save situations, like Thursday and when he gave up two earned runs Monday against Houston, Herrera has yielded 10 earned runs and four home runs in 9.1 innings.

So it’s all distressing and odd, especially if you figure Herrera basically has been terrible in the situation he’s most used to.

But it’s also a little different than assuming the issue is in his head because of the upgrade to more responsibility.

That being said … it’s not like Herrera wasn’t in a pivotal role on Thursday.

And he came undone.

He walked Josh Reddick to open the inning, then he left a fastball up to Jose Altuve, who cranked the floodgates open with a two-run homer.

“He was just flat today,” Royals manager Ned Yost said of Herrera, adding “everybody’s going to have a little hiccup here and there. It’s part of the game.”

Yost acknowledged the home run flurry but rationalized that “it goes in cycles. Just like a hitter’s slump, pitchers get in slumps, too.”

There’s some truth in that, but there’s also truth in this:

Herrera in the moment isn’t the pitcher he’s been … or the one the Royals had expected him to be this season.

Whatever the reason — blame the role change if you want, or, heck, perhaps distraction from rumors he might be trade fodder himself — the Royals now lack the accustomed recent certainty of an advantage in the crucible.

As thin as their margin for error seems to be, Herrera is going to have to find his past form for the Royals to have any legitimate chance to stride back into contention in the American League Central.

It might help if he’d keep the ball down, a common denominator in most of the home runs he’s allowed.

It might help that Thursday was the last the Royals will see of Houston, which has scored seven of the 15 earned runs he’s allowed this season.

It also figures to help that Herrera evidently has learned the benefits of amnesia, something that Yost figures goes back to the night in 2013 when he gave up three home runs in an inning against Atlanta.

“That just shook him to the core,” Yost said.

The next day, though, Herrera pitched a scoreless inning against the Braves.

“That was a painful lesson,” Herrera said, noting that he learned “how to forget quick.”

At least psychologically, he already was working on that late Thursday as the Royals set out to leave for a nine-game road trip.

“That is the beauty of this game,” he said. “I cannot do anything about what happened tonight. I’ve just got to move forward.”

No pressure … but if he doesn’t, the Royals almost certainly won’t.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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