Vahe Gregorian

Jason Vargas’ starting failure puts Royals in tough spot as World Series is tied

Jason Vargas (second from right) talked things over during a visit on the mound in the third inning.
Jason Vargas (second from right) talked things over during a visit on the mound in the third inning. The Kansas City Star

Unless you consider his eerie resemblance to comedian Jon Lovitz, Royals’ pitcher Jason Vargas’s public face is a blank canvas.

Most of the time when he’s working, actually, his default demeanor straddles stoic and morose.

In the third inning of game four of the World Series on Saturday at AT&T Park, though, Vargas slipped and betrayed that somber manner after he started to trot to first base … on ball three.

When he realized his goof, Vargas froze in place, beaming, before sheepishly going back to home plate.

It was a hilarious, human and memorable moment, something he’d later categorize as a mental cramp that reflected the rarity of being in the batter’s box as an American League pitcher.

But, alas, it also was the highlight of his all-too-human game.

And it came on a night the Royals had to have a bloodless outing like his previous two postseason appearances against the Angels and Orioles.

Instead of girding the Royals for victory again, Vargas served to gild the way for the Giants to pummel them 11-4.

“As a starting pitcher you want to get as deep in the game and close the gap for the bullpen as much as you can,” he said. “I wasn’t able to do that tonight.”

Thus the Giants tied the series 2-2, assuring a sixth game in Kansas City on Tuesday.

Sending the series back to Kauffman Stadium will be welcome for Royals fans, but that’s minor consolation in the moment.

Just in time for sputtering James Shields to be matched against Giants’ menace Madison Bumgarner on Sunday, Vargas’ game served as a reminder of a curious and nerve-racking turn in the Royals’ winning formula this postseason.

The starting pitching that was so essential and reliable in delivering their first postseason berth since 1985 suddenly has become a roulette wheel. Including the three runs charged to Vargas in four innings on Saturday, Royals starters have given up 31 runs 61 1/3 postseason innings.

Take the improbable Jeremy Guthrie out of the equation, and it’s 28 runs surrendered in 51 1/3 innings.

The events Saturday only further cemented Guthrie’s rise to improbable staff postseason ace, a status that could be challenged anew if the series goes to game seven.

The wobbly other numbers largely have been cloaked by the supernatural back end of the Royals’ bullpen, a few scoring binges and the Royals’ patented MacGyveresque resourcefulness.

Who’s to grouse or fret, after all, when the Royals had won 10 of their previous 11 postseason games?

It’s not polite to stare, after all, and why dissect virtual flawlessness?

But the issue is in glowing neon now, front and center and surely pivotal in the best-of-three series that remains.

In a scenario in which Vargas’ minimum daily requirement merely was to navigate five decent innings, in a game in which he was furnished with the magic four-run baseline that has foretold 139 Royals wins in 167 games the last two seasons, he could barely creep into the fifth before becoming unhinged.

That in turn led to chaos cascading through the Royals’ previously impenetrable but depleted bullpen.

But that was as much a reflection of the fickle rotation, really, as anything else.

The dynamics also called back into scrutiny the shroud around Danny Duffy, who was the Royals’ best starter for several months (posting a stingy 2.53 ERA) before suffering a shoulder injury on the first pitch of his start at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 6.

Duffy returned later in September and insists he’s healthy, but the decision to use him exclusively in relief this postseason still seems foggy after Duffy’s choppy Saturday appearance (a hit, a walk, several major misfires and one man retired).

In fairness to Vargas and the decision-making process, though, he fared rather well in his previous two starts after traipsing into the postseason with a worrisome September.

Paving the way to a 3-2 victory against the Angels and a 2-1 win over the Orioles, Vargas entered the game Saturday having yielded three earned runs in 11 1/3 innings.

The Giants nibbled at him from the get-go, though.

“I didn’t feel like he was super-sharp tonight,” manager Ned Yost said, “but he does what he does: He competes.”

Leadoff man Gregor Blanco converted a walk into a run by zipping to second on a wild pitch, stealing third and scoring on Hunter Pence’s ground out.

Vargas pacified the Giants with a 1-2-3 second, but they whittled a 4-1 Royals lead to 4-2 in the third and agitated for more in the fourth with two hits.

Then came the fifth, and a leadoff double by Joe Panik.

Out came Vargas, and this time the bullpen couldn’t contain the mess.

“We went to what’s been working for us,” Vargas said, “and I put them in a tough spot.”

And that leaves the Royals in a jam … with little to smile about.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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