There certainly is an element of the spectacular at play when watching a pitcher’s season totals regress to the mean and his true-talent level in one start. When All-Star Break is already in the rear-view, the spectacle operating here happens to be of the grotesque, Guthrian, trainwreck, Hochevar-unturning-the-corner, blood-bath, Volquez-implosion, dumpster-fire variety. This is inarguably less than an ideal development for Jason Vargas and the Royals, but speaking from a purely agnostic standpoint, it is hard not to marvel at one brief, horrific start—his 18th—raising his ERA from 2.62 to 3.06.
The Tigers wasted little time in attacking southpaw Jason Vargas. Facing just one left-handed hitter in the Tigers’ lineup (Alex Avila), the Royals’ All-Star southpaw was at a decided platoon disadvantage from the minute the Dartmouth Dunce selected his lineup.
Vargas watched as leadoff man Ian Kinsler went after his first offering, an 84.7 MPH fastball down the heart of the plate, stroking it to the wall in straightaway center. Starting things off with a double is never ideal. Nicholas “Don’t Call Me ‘Nick’” Castellanos followed with a single to left. More than familiar with the Royals’ Gold-Glove left fielder’s exploits in left, the Tigers were not about to challenge Alex Gordon’s arm on a routine play with no outs in the inning.
With runners at the corners, Justin Upton shot a comebacker to the mound, and Vargas caught Kinsler too far off the bag. Unfortunately for Vargas and the Royals, Kinsler was far enough down the line to get into rundown with Castellanos and Upton advancing to third and second on the play. Miguel Cabrera flew out to shallow left, and again the Tigers showed patience in not testing Gordon’s arm. After two pitches in which Vargas was not able to tease J.D. Martinez into chasing garbage out of the zone, the Royals opted to intentionally walk Martinez—who at this point in the season was 18-for-36 against lefties with six dongs—to get to switch-hitter Victor Martinez.
Having loaded the bases with two outs, Vargas was unable to stay in the strike zone against the Tigers’ designated hitter, and he walked his first unintentional batter of the night. The first Tigers’ run of the night came by way of a gift of a bases-loaded walk. 1-0, Tigers.
This was just the beginning.
Vargas escaped what was still a bases-loaded jam getting a gift of a called third strike (it was up and in) against Mikie Mahtook, but he wasted little time in digging himself another hole in the second.
Apparently whatever disease Ian Kennedy has is contagious because Jason Vargas walked Alex Avila to lead off the second. The last two of the called balls were strikes per MLB Gameday’s strike zone overlay with the second-to-last missed call being particularly egregious (see insert),
but this is what happens when the team’s primary catcher struggles with adequately framing pitches in that quadrant. Of course, poor framing doesn’t excuse pitch number four. Any miss that bad is entirely on home-plate umpire Tom Hallion.
What followed was pretty much all on Vargas.
Vargas got José Iglesias swinging for his second strikeout of the game, but Ian Kinsler took advantage of another mid-80s strike that hit the heart of the plate and yanked it into the gap in left-center. Lorenzo Cain laid out trying to snag the screaming liner from the air, but he came up short. The ball kicked back to the wall, and Kinsler cruised into third for his second extra-base hit in the first two innings. Alex Avila crossed the plate for the second Detroit run of the night, and up to the plate sauntered Nicky Castellanos with Kinsler standing at third.
It turns out where Kinsler was standing was immaterial.
After scraping his way to a 2-1 count, Vargas reached into his bag of tricks and unleashed a change-up. The cambio has been the key to his success this year. Unfortunately, this time Vargas used the bag to take a dump into, set it on a door step, set it ablaze, rang the door bell, ran around to the back door of the house, heard the bell’s ring echo through the cavernous house, opened the door, saw the flaming bag, and stomped it out. Castellanos sent that change that was left in the heart of the strike zone—this is a recurring theme—over the second wall in dead center.
Detroit led 4-0, and the stench from Vargas’s shit-covered shoes was beginning to be a bit too much to take.
Vargas eventually escaped the second inning but not before issuing another walk. His third inning went just as badly as his first two. Victor Martinez singled, and Vargas left a two-seamer middle-in to Mikie Mahtook. Mahtook completely destroyed the ball, sending it 445 feet to left, depositing it into one of the fountains. Vargas then got two outs, striking out Avila and getting Iglesias to ground out, before having to face Kinsler again. Kinsler jumped all over Vargas, tripling for the second time of the day.
After expending 70 pitches to get eight outs, Ned Yost had finally seen enough. He rose from the dugout, fingered Scott Alexander, and handed him a ball.
Vargas left, responsible for Kinsler at third, ceding six earned runs—two coming by way of two-run dongs—on seven hits and four walks while striking out four and mixing a balk in for good measure. Tom Hallion’s strike zone was WILDLY inconsistent, but Vargas was getting hit early, often, and extremely hard. Kinsler’s three extra-base hits and the two home runs were on Vargas’s mistakes. The strike zone had no bearing on that.
Alexander got the Royals out of the third without allowing any further damage, but the Tigers added another run in the fourth to run the score to 7-0 in the fourth.
This is as good a time as any to mention that Jordan Zimmermann has been truly terrible this season. His ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and DRA were all over 5.00 entering tonight’s game. Walks? Up. Strikeouts? Down. Dongs? Through the roof.
Facing a pitcher who has struggled as much as Zimmermann should have been an opportunity for the offense to get back on track. Instead, the team that rolled through June and first few days of July managed a measly six singles through the first six innings, striking out six times while not working a single walk, all the while making Zimmermann look like his 2014 self, not present-day, enfeebled Jordan Zimmermann.
Detroit added a run against reliever Kevin McCarthy in the top of the seventh to run the score to 8-0, Tigers.
Jordan Zimmermann hit Alcides Escobar in the hand with his 90th pitch of the evening. This precipitated Escobar’s exit from the game, Ramón Torres entering as a pinch-runner and replacement at short. It looked like the lead-off runner would be squandered as Brandon Moss struck out and Alex Gordon flew out right, but Whit Merrifield built on the momentum of what might have been his best defensive play of the season snagging a grounder on the left side of the bag at second and pitching it to Escobar for the final out of the top-half of the inning and stroked a double to the gap in right-center. Torres raced home, and the Royals finally got to the not vaunted Tigers’ pen with an out to go in the seventh.
Australian righty Warwick Saupold entered in relief of Zimmermann with Merrifield at second. Jorge Bonifacio battled back from an 0-2 hole before getting hit by a pitch in on the hands, the second Royal hit batsman of the inning. Smarting, Bonifacio stayed in the game, and Billy Burns (still jetlagged from the chartered Learjet flight that brought him to Kansas City from Omaha) worked the count full, almost getting on via swinging bunt up the third-base line that just rolled foul, before flaring out to shallow center, nearly having the ball drop between Iglesias, Kinsler, and Mahtook only to have Mahtook snag it on a sliding catch.
Billy Burns had his own highlight reel catch in the top of the eighth, saving Al Alburquerque from allowing a baserunner in his 12-pitch frame.
Saupold came out to pitch in the home half of the eighth, and Eric Hosmer greeted his return to the bump with a no-doubt dong over the bullpen in right. It ran the score to 8-2. Saupold lost Drew Butera—lo! all the subs!—to a walk, and that spelled the end of his night. In came former Royals farmhand Daniel Stumpf—lost via Rule 5 draft—to face Mike Moustakas. Moustakas smoked a liner but hit it right to Kinsler at second. Torres grounded out, moving Butera up in the process. Brandon Moss kept the inning alive with a four-pitch walk, but Alex Gordon hit one off the end of his bat for the final out of the inning.
Any worries about squandered opportunities were rendered moot as Neftalí Feliz yielded a double followed by three singles before escaping via a 5-4-3 double play. Through the messy inning, the Tigers added two runs back to their total, running their lead back up to eight runs.
The Royals did not come back. There was never to be any coming back tonight.
The Royals have now dropped six of their last seven. The Royals being the hottest team in the American League seems to be such a distant memory as to have been from another eon or perhaps an alternate universe. These Royals look a lot more like the Royals of April. Or of 2005.