BALTIMORE — The good news, if you want to look hard enough, is that implosions like the Royals experienced Wednesday night in the fifth inning are now fairly rare.
Back in say, 2006, they happened all of the time. So, if you want, you can choose to look at this 5-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles as a reminder of much of what the Royals are attempting to undo.
It’s not inconsiderable.
As third baseman Mike Moustakas noted, “That inning was tough for us.”
And tough to watch:
The Royals had just closed to 2-1 in the top of the fifth after Alex Gordon hit a two-out homer against Baltimore starter Chris Tillman.
And Luis Mendoza, when he started the bottom of the inning, seemed in a nice groove, recovering from J.J. Hardy’s line-hugging, two-run homer in the second inning.
Mendoza had retired eight of nine since Hardy’s drive when Chris Dickerson cued up the wayback machine with a hard grounder past first for a leadoff double.
Dickerson broke for third when Nate McLouth followed with a sharp grounder to short. Alcides Escobar chose to try for the lead runner, but his throw hit Dickerson and skipped away.
“It was a hard ground ball,” Escobar said, “and I looked at the runner and thought I had time to make the play. But that’s a bad throw.”
Runners at first and third with no outs.
“The key to that inning,” manager Ned Yost said, “is if Esky just takes the out at first. They probably score just one run. But he tried to make a play. Part of me likes it that they’re trying to make plays.”
Moustakas defended Escobar’s decision.
“It was a smart play,” he said, “and it was the right play. If it’s a good throw, I think we’ve got him. Esky fielded it clean. He just hit Dickerson in the foot (with the throw), and it kind of kicked off.
“If it doesn’t hit him, I still think we get him.”
But it did, and they didn’t — and the time warp was fully revved up.
McLouth stole second on Mendoza’s first pitch to Manny Machado — and did so without a throw from catcher George Kottaras, who drew a rare start in place of Salvy Perez.
Machado then grounded a single through the left side on a 1-2 pitch for a 3-1 lead.
“I tried to stay inside,” Mendoza said. “But after two sinkers, he stayed there (with the same pitch) and hit it. I think it was a good pitch. It was low.”
When Machado attempted to steal second, Kottaras did make a throw — a bad one that bounced before caroming away from Escobar.
McLouth broke for home on Kottaras’ throwing error, which Escobar compounded by throwing wildly to the plate for his second error of the inning.
Machado went to third on the second Escobar error before scoring on a wild pitch when Mendoza dirted a change-up past Kottaras.
So, let reset that mess: Two hits, three errors, two stolen bases, a wild pitch and three runs all in a span of three batters. The Orioles led 5-1.
“I can’t believe I made two stupid errors,” Escobar said. “But that happens.”
It happened a lot as recently as 2006. Escobar probably doesn’t remember because he was toiling at some outpost called Brevard County in the Milwaukee system. Who does remember? Show of hands?
George W. Bush was in the White House. Scott Elarton started for the Royals on opening day, and Moustakas and Eric Hosmer were still in high school.
The Royals were in their first full season under Buddy Bell as manager, transitioning general managers from Allard Baird to Dayton Moore and on their way to losing 100 games for the fourth time in five years.
Those who do remember find it hard to forget.
Mendoza (0-2) offered a final glimpse at that recent past when, after retiring the next two hitters, he began walking toward the dugout before realizing there were just two outs. (That was vintage Royals from 2002-06.)
That three-batter meltdown looked even worse when Moustakas rocked a two-run homer in the sixth.
Elliot Johnson followed Moustakas’ homer by trying — and failing — to stretch a single to right into a double when Dickerson lobbed the ball back to the infield.
“You’re gambling there,” Yost said. “If you make it, momentum kind of shifts your way. If you don’t, it kind of shifts back their way. We were trying to get some momentum.
“Elliot broke hard out of the box and was hoping to catch them asleep.”
It didn’t work. Second baseman Ryan Flaherty took Dickerson’s lob and made a snap throw to Hardy for the out.
It was that kind of night.
Tillman (3-1) departed after that inning with a line that showed three runs and five hits in six innings. Now the Royals were matched against the Orioles’ tough bullpen.
Troy Patton worked a scoreless seventh, but the Royals put two runners on base in the seventh against Darren O’Day before Brian Matusz stranded both by retiring Moustakas on a foul pop to the catcher.
Jim Johnson closed out Baltimore’s victory with a scoreless ninth for his 13th save of the season. He has a string of 34 straight successful conversions going back to last year.
“We battled back,” said Moustakas, who had three of the Royals’ seven hits. “In the eighth inning, I had a chance to get us back but just popped up. There are always chances.”
Perhaps that attitude is the takeaway from a forgettable night at Camden Yards. That this isn’t 2006. That the Royals, even with three straight losses, are 17-13 and already have 11 comeback victories.
An optimistic view? Sure. Then again, the 2006 club, after 30 games, had exactly eight victories. That’s worth remembering. Just not too often.