The Royals have walked a fine line this season, jumping into first place in the AL Central and, for a time, possessing the best record in baseball thanks in large part to lots of close wins. They did this with an inconsistent offense and some inconsistent starting pitching.
And in a series where an overperforming bullpen was exposed, the offense put the final nail in this sweep’s coffin, managing just four hits in a 4-0 loss Thursday afternoon. Kansas City has lost its last five games.
While the Royals' offense got off to a sluggish start and had some pretty terrible at-bats down the stretch, it started with some bad luck. Through three innings, Kansas City had just one hit to show for its work against Cleveland Starter Triston McKenzie, that being a lead-off single from Whit Merrifield. But they were also 1-5 during that stretch on balls hit at least 98 MPH off the bat.
#Royals currently 1-5 on balls with an exit velo of 98+.— Hunter Samuels (@HunterSamuels) May 6, 2021
McKenzie also struggled with his command, walking himself into a 3rd inning jam with two free passes that ended with a hard hit lineout from Andrew Benintendi, who returned the favor with a tremendous diving catch to end the top half of the 4th.
That struggle continued into 4th, issuing a leadoff walk to Carlos Santana before a Jose Ramirez error put runners on 1st and 2nd with nobody out. But two poorly timed strikeouts ended that rally, including a check-swing strikeout that prompted Ryan O’Hearn to give third base umpire Angel Hernandez a nice, long staredown.
On the other side, Danny Duffy labored through his six innings and ran into some tough luck as well. Cleveland got its first run in the 2nd inning on a single that left the bat at 68 MPH. Then in the 5th, Duffy threw what appeared to be strike three to Rene Rivera, a strikeout that would have ended the inning, but it was called a ball. Rivera singled on the next pitch. Cesar Hernandez followed by slapping a single to right field on a very good pitch from Duffy. That ball left the bat at 72 MPH.
Jordan Luplow ended the sequence with an RBI single on a nice slider from Duffy that was down and out of the zone. It put Cleveland up 2-0. It was the first outing of the season from Duffy where he surrendered more than two runs.
He labored again through his final frame, beginning with an 11-pitch walk to Franmil Reyes, who moved to 2nd on a wild pitch. It was the third time that Duffy started an inning with a runner on 2nd and nobody out. He struck out the next two batters and was poised to get out of the inning, but gave up a triple to Amed Rosario on the final pitch of his outing, giving Cleveland a 3-0 lead. Tyler Zuber came on to stand Rosario at third and prevent further damage.
Duffy ended his afternoon giving up eight hits across 5.2 innings. He struck out six, walked just one Cleveland batter, and threw 107 pitches for the 2nd consecutive start..
And as Cleveland took advantage of Kansas City’s mistakes, the Royals' offense continued to miss opportunities. McKenzie entered the game with an ERA north of 6.00 and didn’t pitch particularly well, issuing out his fair share of walks and getting some lucky BABIP luck on hard-hit balls. But he handed the ball to a Cleveland bullpen that has given the Royals the business this series.
This was never more evident than the Royals threat in the 6th. Benintendi began the inning with a single and moved to 2nd on Carlos Santana’s walk, which ended McKenzie’s day. Salvador Perez then promptly grounded into a double play to significantly downplay the threat. A Jorge Soler groundout ended that threat.
Reyes hit an absolute titanic solo shot in the 8th for good measure, boosting the Cleveland lead to 4-0.
Kansas City entered the 9th inning with just two hits and immediately doubled that total with singles from Salvador Perez and Soler. But sticking to the theme, Hunter Dozier grounded into a double play to alleviate the threat. Emmanuel Clase got O’Hearn to strike out on three pitches to end the game. In total, the Royals had the leadoff man reach six times and scored zero runs.
The loss puts the Royals at 16-14 and out of first place in the division for the first time since April 14. And the sweep was indicative of Kansas City’s tight rope act in 2021. Whether it was the inability to give run support to Duffy today or the natural regression from a bullpen that overperformed in April, the bubble has burst a bit this week.
With that said, they are still 16-14, have a lot of home stand left to play, and a ton of games against AL Central opponents over the next few series’. The Royals are still better off than we expected them to be at this point, but they’ll need to stop the bleeding soon and avoid the kind of losing streak that has killed Kansas City in years passed.
Up Next: Royals v. White Sox; Friday, May 7, 7:10 PM CDT, Kauffman Stadium. LHP Carlos Rodon (4-0, 0.72 ERA) v. RHP Brad Keller (2-3, 8.06 ERA)