SEATTLE — Viewed in isolation, the Royals’ 4-3 loss Saturday to Seattle doesn’t seem so bad. Bruce Chen pitched well except for a three-run hiccup in the third inning, and the Royals fell victim to the veteran wiles of Mariners starter Kevin Millwood.
Now take a few steps back, refocus … and whoa! How did the Royals get here? In just four weeks, they’ve gone from the cusp of postseason contention to an uncompetitive, soul-crushing mess.
“We’re much better than we’re playing right now,” Chen insisted. “We’re trying to do everything we can to get out of this funk. We can’t panic. We’ve got to do it one step at a time. I know I lost today, but it was a step in the right direction.”
Maybe it was, but…
The Royals have lost 20 of their last 26 games in plummeting into the American League Central Division’s basement. They have lost six of seven games over the last two weeks to the Mariners, who occupy last place in the AL West.
Their attack is increasingly feeble. Chen’s outing aside, their rotation is a growing problem with no obvious answers. Their defense is springing leaks and usually at inopportune times.
And on Saturday they lost third baseman Mike Moustakas because of a sprained right knee. Moustakas’ injury isn’t believed to be serious, but it had an impact later in the game.
The Royals trailed 3-1 in the eighth when Alex Gordon pumped a one-out double into the left-center gap against reliever Brandon League. Alcides Escobar followed with an RBI triple over the head of center fielder Michael Saunders.
That prompted the Mariners to shorten their infield, but Chris Getz, batting third after replacing Moustakas, grounded weakly to second. (No, there’s no guarantee Moustakas would have done more.) Whatever, Escobar had to hold.
Next came an intentional walk to Billy Butler, who had hits in his three previous at-bats. That got the game to ex-Mariner Yuniesky Betancourt, who was batting fifth in a lineup against a right-handed starter (Millwood).
Betancourt ended the inning by grounding out to third.
Wait … it gets worse later in the inning. Usually reliable José Mijares started the Seattle eighth by walking Saunders, who quickly stole second. That prompted a de facto intentional walk to Jesus Montero before Kyle Seager put down a bunt.
Mijares tried for the force at third but, after losing his grip, made an off-line throw. Everyone was safe, and the bases were loaded with no outs. The official scoring was a sacrifice, with Seager reaching on a fielder’s choice.
“I lost the ball in my glove,” Mijares said, “and had trouble getting it out.”
The Royals brought in Greg Holland, who got John Jaso to hit a grounder to first. Eric Hosmer came home for the force, but catcher Brayan Peña checked to ensure his foot was on the plate. That meant no chance to get Jaso at first.
“We’d just talked about that,” manager Ned Yost said. “Look, we’re going to play the infield in. Give Brayan a good throw so we can turn a double play.’”
Peña said it would have been a “tough” double play.
“The throw was coming from an angle,” he said. “So for me to catch that throw and then shuffle (my feet to make the throw), it would be a tough one. I was making sure I had an out.”
The failure to get a double play meant that Mike Carp’s drive to left was a sacrifice fly instead of the third out. That provided Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen with two-run cushion in the ninth.
That extra run proved decisive when Lorenzo Cain’s two-out drive into the right-field corner eluded Casper Wells for an RBI triple. Wilhelmsen then closed out the victory by retiring Gordon on a grounder to first.
Millwood, 4-8, permitted just one unearned run in 61/3 innings. Chen fell to 7-9 after allowing three runs and seven hits in six innings. Wilhelmsen got his 13th save in 15 chances.
Now? The Royals must solve former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez in today’s series finale to prevent the Mariners from completing a four-game sweep.
It all started better than usual — maybe that’s what Chen meant. The Royals grabbed their first lead since Tuesday by scoring once in the first inning. Escobar bunted for a one-out single and went to second on Seager’s throwing error from third.
Butler blooped a two-out single into right for a 1-0 lead.
Seattle’s first hit was a one-out single in the first by Wells, although replays suggested Moustakas, after a diving stop at the third-base line, made a throw from his knees that beat Wells.
Moustakas suffered his injury on that play.
Seattle broke through for three two-out runs in the third.
Wells reached on a one-out single, but Chen struck out Saunders before Montero golfed a first-pitch offering over the left-field wall for a two-run homer.
“It was down and in,” Chen said. “You can’t say it was a bad pitch. Sometimes, guys who have power are going to get a pitch and drive it.”
Seager followed with a fly to left that fell for a double when Gordon lost the ball in the high sky.
“That’s one where, off the bat, you just try to get to a spot,” Gordon said. “I put my glove up … and nothing.”
Miguel Olivo then grounded an RBI single through the right side. Jeff Francoeur made a strong throw to the plate, but Seager slid around Peña for a 3-1 lead.
“It happens,” Peña said, “when things aren’t going your way.”