This hasn't been the Royals series. Part of what makes baseball such an entertaining sport is that, what with it happening almost every day, it's a marathon; you spend a lot of time with "your team" over the course of a year. And you come to understand that, well, really, even really good teams look like crap sometimes for three games in a row. The season is long enough that usually something close to the the ten-best teams make the dance, but baseball is notoriously cruel over short stretches.
Knowing all this to be true doesn't make back-to-back-to-back crapfests of games any more pleasing to watch, even if it does help take the edge off the panic sometimes. Oh, really? The Royals two-game losing streak has put them only 29 games over .500? Most likely they'll be fine. But still, losing three in a row to the White Sox is ugly. And if there's anything concerning about this team going into the postseason, I'd argue it's the fact that the rotation still doesn't inspire much confidence in their ability to keep opposing teams off the board early. The White Sox haven't found some magic formula to beat Kansas City, really. It's just that the easiest way to beat Kansas City, even moreso than other teams, is to get the starter out early.
Before you're tempted to hit me with a blunt object for pointing out the obvious, what I mean is that the Royals look pretty nigh unbeatable when they get 5-6 decent innings and can turn it over to the 'pen for 7-8-9. We've known this for awhile, and it's meant that they've won a lot of games without really having anything close to consistently good starting pitching this year. Give them a "quality start" and the Royals are one of the best teams in MLB in turning that vague-goodness into an actual real-live win.
So when the rotation-member on the hill doesn't meet that kinda-lowish-but-not-really standard, even the Royals are stretched to make a comeback. In the last couple days, they really haven't even been able to come close to mounting one. Friday's game never looked like they were capable of anything versus the infuriatingly mediocre John Danks, and yesterday the best they could hope for was to flatter to deceive-the game was within three runs for awhile, but they never showed any clue of how to convert one of their scoring chances until the game was over. Seven scoreless for the somewhat-better-but-not-really-usually-dominant Jose Quintana.
Let it be said that today, they did make a run at it (if, after this overly long recap, anything must be said about a series with the White Sox over Labor Day weekend when the division was basically clinched by the beginning of August). However, today's starting pitcher, Johnny Cueto, not only didn't measure up to the average-ish bar of success that the Royals need to win consistently he kind of tripped over it and kicked it into the stands. It was the type of outing where, given his three previous outings, it's hard for people not be a little concerned. I'm not, you understand, but that's because I don't have any baseball emotions left after last year's playoffs and I'm functionally dead inside.
But seriously, Cueto was not good. It wasn't that he came out on the hill with no idea of where the strike zone was--though he did walk two in three innings before Yost took pity (precautionary measures?) on him--it was that nothing really seemed to fool anyone or, worse, stay out of the middle of the zone. That isn't good on your most fortunate day, but it's really bad when it happens against the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox line-up is so bad this season that they've never really threatened to grab a wild card spot despite a Chris Sale-led rotation that's Top 5 in the majors in ERA. Basically, you get through Jose Abreu and maybe Adam Eaten on a day where he ate three bowls of wheaties this morning, and the best you can hope for is the type of vague adequacy that shouldn't even be acceptable given that Chicago's park is a pretty nice place to hit (Avisail Garvia) while the worst is a bunch of guys who I feel like might have conspired to figure out how many regulars on one team could have OBPs lower than .280.
Cueto, however, made them look pretty good. And look, it's not all on him, really it's not, as the White Sox obviously had some nice BABIP luck running, but he wasn't sharp. He was blunt as a factory of blunts situated in the blunty part of town in bluntville. Before Cueto recorded an out, the following had transpired:
- Adam Eaton line drive single on a 1-0 count
- Alexei Ramirez double, sending Eaton to third, on an 0-1 count
- Jose Abreu bleeder through the left side, 1-0 White Sox
- Walk to Melky Cabrera on a full count. Melky Cabrera has a 5.6% walk rate this year
- Cue shot that I'm not sure if I should call a line drive by Avisail Garcia, on the first pitch, juuuuust out of Alcides's Escobar's reach, 3-0 White Sox.
Ew. So anyway, somehow he got out of that inning without the Sox scoring any more. Of course, that might have had to do with the fact that the next three hitters were a season-long-slumping Adam LaRoche and two guys who might hit clean-up for my rec league team. Regardless, I commented on the last "Ups and Downs" post about how Cueto was walking less and giving up more hits, and how that wasn't necessarily bad but it was a little different than his previous MO. That trend continued to a pretty ugly point today. All of the White Sox hits in the first inning were on the second pitch, except for Garcia's first-pitch serve into center.
I'm not sure how much of this sentence I'm currently writing is true and how much is me being an idiot and projecting, but it felt like Cueto had a plan (a pretty typical one for him and one that's worked for most of the year) to operate in the strike zone vs. the White Sox...and just didn't have the command or movement on his pitches get deep into a pitcher's count. As far the White Sox, give them credit for recognizing that Cueto's stuff was staying in the middle of the plate or...whatever it was that Avisail Garcia saw that made him swing at a ball out of the zone and turn it into two ribbies.
The Royals line-up just had a weird day. Unlike the starting pitcher's continued bad results, it wasn't weird and bad...but it was weird. Nothing dropped for the Royals until the seventh inning and they ended up relying on the longball to stay in it. Salavador Petez provided the first solo shot of the game in the bottom of the second, smack the apple over the right-center wall off Erik Johnson, who pretty much did what you'd have expected him to do if you'd watched this whole series--gave the Royals nothing until he began to tire.
Cueto had wobbled through the second inning unharmed, but the death by a thousand badly-located heaters came around again in the visitor's half of the third. Melky Cabrera stroked a single to right, Avisail Garcia then walked. Garcia, of course, also owns a 5.5% walk rate this year. Adam LaRoche smacked a single through the right side that might have been hard enough hit that the runners would've held at second and third, but Ben Zobrist fumbled the ball in right and Cabrera scored easily. With runners at the corners and no one out, Cueto managed to ring up Olt again, get Rob Brantley on a flyout, and strike out Carlos Sanchez. Of course, Garcia, who had also (arguably) moved up on the outfield fumble, scored on Brantley's flyout during that sequence. 5-1 Chicago after three, and it was looking like another blowout in the making.
It wasn't though--Chris Young came on and did a solid job in long relief, eating up the next three innings with the only blemish being Adam Eaton's solo shot in the top of the sixth. Down 6-1, Jarrod Dyson--giving Lorenzo Cain the day off in center--turned on Johnson's 0-1 offering and lined it over the rightfield wall. 6-2, second solo shot, and another rally killed. Two batters later, Mike Moustakas heartlessly killed another rally by homering on an 0-2 mistake pitch to right center. 6-3, and the Royals had it made it interesting. Johnson was done after finally recording the third out of the sixth, having given up 3 solo homers of the five hits allowed total. In retrospect, the rally-killing this inning was probably where the Royals' comeback strategy faltered.
After a 1-2-3 top of the seventh from Luke Hochevar, the Royals started in on Johnson's replacement, Jake Petricka. Petricka plunked Perez, and Paulo Orlando continued his penchant for getting hits at times where I often say, "a hit would be nice right now" (yes, this is confirmation bias) by doubling into the right field corner. Robin Ventura had seen enough of Petricka, and replaced him with Matt Albers. Albers recorded an out without the runners advancing when Eric Hosmer decided to swing at a pitch at his shoe-tops and topped a ball to third.
With runners on second and third and one out, Jarrod Dyson also got way on top of an Albers offering and hit a chopper into the twilight zone between the mound, first, and second. Dyson beat Albers to the base and it was 6-4. Alcides Escobar who, as several commenters suggested in the game thread, really looks like he could use a day off or two, managed to lift a fly ball deep enough to score Orlando from third. 6-5, and, even with Zobrist's flyout to end the inning, now it seemed like some degree of normalcy was returning to the baseball world, as mediocre teams like the White Sox blow leads to better teams all the team.
However, it wasn't to be. After neither side scored in the 8th, Adam Eaton, my choice for the "the Royals would have won this game if this player had woken up with the flu today" award, doubled off Ryan Madson to lead off the top half of the ninth. A grounder and a flyout brought him home, and the Royals now needed two runs to tie in the bottom half of the inning.
David Robertson came on the 9th--another pretty good player who the White Sox probably would've been wise to use at the deadline, as "White Sox Closer" has been a boring job this season--and Perez greeting him by lining a 1-1 pitch to left. Unfortunately, it hung out enough for Eaton to catch it. Paul O. Orlando, Esquire, in stark contrast to his early heroics, slapped a weak liner right to Sanchez at second. Pinch-hitter Christian Colon followed suit, only on the ground, and that was that.
With the final out recorded, the Royals were swept at home for the first time this season, and this is also, I'm told, the only time Johnny Cueto has lost four straight decisions (and pitcher W-L are garbage but it's rather indicative of his slump and it's a topical un-fun fact so whatever). Not really sure what more to add to that. While it's tempting to think something's wrong with a couple of the Royals players, I strongly suggest that we all just have a Fresca and chill out for Labor Day. As for the Royals? Turn the page and defeat the heck out of the Twins in the next three-game set. At least the Royals aren't peaking too soon!