If someone were looking for Royals highlights, they should probably begin and end their search with the first pitch of the night.
Alex Gordon jumped all over Carlos Carrasco's first pitch of the night, clubbing a shot to left-center field. Gor. Dong.
Lorenzo Cain reached with a one-out single, but as quickly as he reached, he got picked off by Carrasco at first.
Barring a cruel tease of a rally in which the combined distance of the two RBI hits traveled roughly 150 feet before the bullpen blew the game back open for Cleveland, there was little joy to be derived from the Royals' play on the field--unless, of course, one takes delight in their failure.
Dismal play has been their calling card for the last ten games, and for the rotation, the problems reach back further.
For a child not familiar with what it was like to suffer through the first 20 years of post-strike Royals baseball, this stretch is as good an educational tool as any. Point to these games with reverie for the early-Aughts' Royals equating the latest start to those for which Runelvys Hernandez or Jose Lima were known. Give the youth a sense of appreciation for the simpler times in which contention was something other fans got to enjoy while Royals fans watched Ken Harvey do Ken Harvey things and endured double-digit losing streaks as a semi-annual exercise in building character.
Those who took delight in the Royals' defiant affront to projection systems have been seen splattered on the pavement, waxen wings melted to their broken backs as the rotation regresses to the mean with violent intent.
Tonight's awful start came courtesy of Edinson Volquez, whose relationship with his command tonight was a mercurial one, fraught with danger, teetering on the brink of disaster at one moment, only to just as suddenly return with nary a signal. This exacerbating dance continued as children watched on in horror.
The first batter he faced, Jason Kipnis, clubbed a dong that was essentially golfed into the stands. He allowed two more runners in the first before getting Yan Gomes to strike out to extricate Volquez from the situation.
In the second, Volquez sent Cleveland's back-end trio of Abraham Almonte, Giovanni Urshela, and Jose Ramirez down in order. This marked the first time that a Royals' starting pitcher sent down the opposition in order in a frame since 2009, in a game played in Toronto and one of historic significance.
Just as suddenly as his command emerged from the smoke of the blazing Cuyahoga in the second, it stepped back into the cloud in the third. After a one-pitch out courtesy of Jason Kipnis, Volquez walked Francisco Lindor on four pitches. With Michael Brantley at the plate, Lindor took off for second. Volquez missed HIGH and sent the pitch to the backstop, giving Perez no shot at catching the runner.
With Lindor standing at second for reasons pretty much entirely Volquez's fault, he worked the count full to Brantley and missed high on a breaking ball. Brantley started to throw his bat toward the dugout only to get called out looking by Jeff Nelson on a pitch that was not a strike.
With a gift from the home plate umpire in his back pocket, Volquez turned around and walked Carlos Santana on five pitches. Lonnie Chisenhall stroked a laser to the wall in right, but it shot back into Alex Rios's hands immediately, and only Lindor scored on the double.
After a visit from Dave Eiland, Volquez finally escaped the inning with a line-out to center from Yan Gomes. The damage likely should have been greater, but a beneficial call limited the damage to one run. Running the score to 2 - 1 Cleveland.
Volquez's next frame saw him work with an efficiency that had escaped him in the third, but working itself into the mix was a sinker that stayed up in the zone to Urshela that got drilled in a particularly demoralizing hanging of dong that seemed to signal the end of the game a mere four frames deep into the game.
Efficiency and command reverted to their status as foreign concepts to Volquez in the fifth as he walked Lindor AGAIN, and Brantley followed with a lined single to left, advancing Lindor to second. At this point, his pitch count had surpassed the 80-pitch mark while not yet recording an out in the fifth. Carlos Santana beat the shift going the other way, but Lindor was held at third, loading the bases with Volquez's 87th pitch of the evening.
Chisenhall went the other way with a sacrifice fly to left-center, deep enough to score Lindor from third but not to advance the other two runners. On a Yan Gomes comebacker to the mound ripe for a double play, Volquez was stuck waiting for the second base umpire to get out of the throwing lane to second, allowing Gomes to beat the second throw on the could-have-been double play. The umpires giveth, and the umpires taketh away, striking a karmic balance for Volquez's evening.
Volquez's counterpart had no such issues with command. Carlos Carrasco didn't reach a 2-0 count until he had thrown 5.2 innings. In the first five innings, there was not an inning in which his pitch count passed 14. The Royals teased with a two-out threat in the sixth, loading the bases thanks in large part to Carrasco issuing his first two walks of the game to Zobrist and Hosmer which were sandwiched around a single. Unfortunately for the Royals, Morales grounded a first-pitch change-up to short to end the inning with a flaccid whimper--a term that succinctly doubles as the apt descriptor for the Royals' September.
Volquez's night was over after the fifth, handing the game and a 4 - 1 deficit to The Gigantic Princetonian. As if John Calvin's doctrine of predestination was actively looking to play itself out on a baseball diamond, Young worked around a one-out walk, inducing a weak pop-fly in foul territory, a pop-fly in on the infield grass near first, and then getting the gift of a caught stealing from Jose Ramirez, erasing the only baserunner he allowed in the frame.
Given an inning with such little damage done, dreamers will slumber envisioning a future or alternate reality in which the entire rotation consists just of cloned Chris Youngs.
Puzzlingly, Terry Francona turned to his bullpen in the top of the seventh, despite Carrasco's pitch count having only reached 82. After a Mike Moustakas pop-foul behind the plate that just barely stayed playable, Zach McAllister allowed back-to-back one-out singles to Salvador Perez and Alex Rios. Working the count full to Alcides Escobar, he missed with a four-seamer up out of the strike zone, but Escobar swung at the pitch that could have loaded the bases and popped it up on the infield dirt between first and second.
Francona had seen enough of McAllister and turned to righty Bryan Shaw to face Alex Gordon. Shaw immediately uncorked a wild pitch allowing both Perez and Rios to advance to second and third. With two outs, Gordon hit a grounder to third baseman Giovanni Urshela. Urshela charged, fielded the ball, and fired a throw off to Carlos Santana at first, but the throw was off-line, pulling Santana off the bag to prevent it from going into the outfield and allowing Gordon to reach safely with an "infield single." Perez scored the Royals' second run of the night, and Rios moved up to third on the play.
On the next play, Ben Zobrist hit a topped a slow chopping grounder up the third base line upon which Urshela had no chance at redemption. Rios came across the plate, Gordon moved up to second, and the Royals had back-to-back RBI-infield-singles, cutting Cleveland's lead to 4 - 3. Unfortunately for the Royals, the two-out rally stopped at two runs, leaving the Royals down a run with just two more trips to the plate.
Of course, even with Kelvin Herrera on the mound, that one-run deficit was not safe.
After getting Lindor swinging for the first out, Brantley went the other way on a double before Herrera granted Santana a free pass. Lonnie Chisenhall pushed a ground-ball single through the right side of the infield, and then Yan Gomes--who was as sure a rally-killer as there was in the first two-thirds of this game--ripped a double the other way to right, plating the second and third Cleveland runs of the inning.
The Royals did little in the top of the eighth, stranding Moustakas, who reached with a two-out single. In the bottom of the frame, Franklin Morales gave up a lead-off double to Jose Ramirez and then got Kipnis to fly out to center for the first out.
In vintage Royals' form, Morales served up a two-seamer that Lindor smoked to deep right. Alex Rios chased the ball to the wall, leaping into the padding but not catching the ball. The ball bounced off the top of the wall and back into play off the yellow of the padding. Rios lackadaisically walked back toward his spot in right field while the ball leisurely rolled away from him. The umpire ruled that the ball was in play, but urgency is not a concept that Rios understands. Lindor, who also thought the ball was a home run, was trotting around the bases before realizing that the ball was ruled still in play and still got a triple.
Cleveland added just one run in the inning, but the Royals trailed 8 - 3 with three outs remaining.
Gordon--who went managed four hits including the home run to lead off the game--lined a single up the middle with two outs in the ninth. Zobrist followed with a walk. None of it mattered.
The Royals are now mired in a ten-game stretch of truly awful baseball. It would be hard to envision their lead in the Central completely evaporating, but they are currently a dumpster fire of 2014 Oaklandian proportions. It seems like the entire pitching staff is now terrible. It is increasingly difficult to stave off those pangs of panic, and that this stretch of abysmal play could lead one to fondly reminisce about the bad old days where games in September had no meaning is disturbing.