PITTSBURGH — Don’t look now but, if things don’t change, the Royals could find themselves in last place by the end of Sunday. Yep, that’s how bad things are going at this point.
The Royals blew an early three-run lead Saturday night in a 5-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. That makes four losses in their last five games and leaves them just one-half game ahead of last-place Minnesota in the American League Central.
All of the damage occurred in a five-run fourth inning that harkened back to April and those find-a-way-to-lose days of that still-crushing 12-game losing streak.
It started with a walk and a hit batsman, included a costly error and came sprinkled with a maddening mix of well-placed choppers and grounders.
Five runs from that.
“It was just one of those innings,” catcher Brayan Peña said, “where you go, ‘OK, why is this happening?’ For us, it’s frustrating because we know we’re way better than we’re playing.”
Royals starter Vin Mazzaro, 2-1, had just made it 3-0 in the top of the fourth with a two-out RBI single — his first career hit — when everything turned sour.
Mazzaro started the collapse by walking Pedro Alvarez and hitting José Tabata. A single by Rod Barajas loaded the bases with no outs.
“You’ve got the lead,” Mazzaro said. “You don’t want to go out there and walk the first guy. Then I get a guy 0-2 and hit him. Then the single was 0-2, too. A slider that was a little bit up. Then it all starts coming apart.”
All the way apart.
Clint Barmes’ single off the glove of a diving Alcides Escobar at deep short scored one run and kept the bases loaded with no outs.
It also finished Mazzaro.
“I was a little fearful after he got the hit,” manager Ned Yost said, “that type of inning might develop. It’s been my experience with pitchers who aren’t in the National League, anytime they get a hit and run the bases …
“And knowing their pitching staff, how good it is, and we’ve been struggling to score runs, I wanted to try to stop the bleeding right then and there.”
Matt Hague batted for Pittsburgh starter James McDonald and greeted reliever Kelvin Herrera with a liner to right that, probably, should have been caught. But Eric Hosmer, a first baseman shifted to right, played the ball on a hop.
Because the runners held, anticipating a catch, Hosmer threw home for what should have been a force at the plate.
Should have been — until Peña bobbled the ball for an error. The bases were still loaded and still there were no outs.
“I thought I had control of it,” Peña said. “I think I kept it against my chest. It was a tough hop. I was trying to catch the baseball but, at the same time, I was trying to make sure I didn’t let the baseball go behind me.”
And it got worse.
Alex Presley’s check swing resulted in a soft chop toward third that left Mike Moustakas with no play. The result was an RBI single that made it 3-3 and, yes, left the bases still loaded with no outs.
The Royals finally got an out on Neil Walker’s grounder to first, but another run scored, and the Pirates led 4-3. After a walk to Andrew McCutchen reloaded the bases, Garrett Jones grounded into a fielder’s choice that produced another run.
Finally, the inning ended when Alvarez, batting for the second time, flied out to left. Not one hard-hit ball in the inning … and five runs.
“That’s a tough gig when you look at losing that way,” center fielder Jeff Francoeur said, “but we had plenty of chances to come back and score. We just weren’t able to do it.”
The Pirates’ bullpen took it from there. Chris Resop, Doug Slaten, Jared Hughes and Joel Hanrahan closed out a victory that pulled Pittsburgh to within one game of first-place Cincinnati in the National League Central.
Hughes, 2-0, got the victory, while Hanrahan collected his 17th save in 19 chances.
All that after it started well.
Yuniesky Betancourt gave the Royals a 2-0 lead by ramming a 1-1 curve from McDonald into the left-field seats with one out in the second inning. Betancourt’s homer, his third of the year, followed a walk to Alex Gordon.
The Royals extended their lead to 3-0 after Hosmer opened the fourth with a double to right. He moved to third on Peña’s fly to deep center but had to hold when Escobar hit a weak chop back to the mound.
That gave McDonald a chance to escape, but Mazzaro sliced a 2-2 fastball into right field for an RBI single — the first RBI by a Royals pitcher since Brian Bannister had an RBI double on June 12, 2010 at Cincinnati.
Not much went right after that.
“You’ve got to give credit to their pitching staff,” Yost said. “Their pitching staff is good, but when the best two-out hit you get comes from your pitcher …
“When you’re not scoring, you just keep hoping tomorrow is the day you’re going to break out of it.”
The alternative could be last place.