MINNEAPOLIS — The season-long numbers still paint the Royals as one of the American League’s more-productive clubs with runners in scoring position. Not lately, though.
That inefficiency surfaced again Thursday at a crucial point in a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins in the opener of a four-game series at Target Field.
The Royals trailed 2-1 in the seventh when Billy Butler and Salvy Perez opened the inning with singles against Twins starter Sam Deduno.
Mike Moustakas fouled off a bunt before sending a fly to deep right that moved Butler to third with one out — and set up the game’s pivotal moment.
Deduno responded by striking out David Lough on three straight cut fastballs before ending the inning by retiring Elliot Johnson on a fielder’s-choice grounder to short.
It got worse later in the seventh after the Twins put runners at first and second with one out. Jeremy Guthrie induced a potential double-play grounder to third by Brian Dozier.
But Moustakas botched the ball as baserunner Trevor Plouffe cut in front of him. The result was an error that loaded the bases. It also prompted a pitching change to lefty Will Smith, which turned Pedro Florimon to the right side.
Florimon’s fly to left was deep enough to score Plouffe for a 3-1 lead instead of the third out. That run was charged to Guthrie, who is 7-6 after losing a third straight decision.
Deduno (4-2) handed that two-run lead to the Minnesota bullpen. Jared Burton worked around a one-out single in the eighth before Glen Perkins stranded two runners in a scoreless ninth for his 20th save in 22 chances.
The Royals (36-40) lost for the sixth time in eight games since reaching .500. Increasingly, the common denominator is an attack that can’t deliver a key hit.
They were hitless Thursday in six situations with a runner in scoring position and, going back 11 games, are now 17 for their last 90. That’s a .189 average.
Fittingly, the game ended when pinch hitter Miguel Tejada grounded out to third with runners at second and third.
Deduno yielded one run and five hits in seven innings in shackling the Royals for the second time in 24 days. He worked six-plus innings June 4 in Minnesota’s 3-0 victory at Kauffman Stadium.
The loss cost the Royals another chance to pick up a game on struggling division leader Detroit. They are also now only a half game ahead of fourth-place Minnesota.
The Twins opened the game with some shaky defense when Dozier bungled Alex Gordon’s slow leadoff tapper to second. It was scored a single.
Alcides Escobar then topped a ball back to Deduno for what should have been a double play, but Deduno bungled it before recovering and settling for an out at first.
The Royals couldn’t cash the chance. Gordon moved to third on Eric Hosmer’s soft grounder to first before Butler lined out to center.
Gordon’s weak single to open the game provided the only base-runner until Clete Thomas grounded a leadoff single up the middle in the Minnesota fourth.
Guthrie retired Joe Mauer on a fly to center, but Thomas moved to second on Josh Willingham’s ground single through the left-side hole just beyond Moustakas’ reach
Justin Morneau followed by poking an RBI double past third for a 1-0 lead. Oswaldo Arcia’s single to right-center made it 2-0 as Morneau stopped at third before Plouffe grounded into a double play.
The Royals got one run back when Perez led off the fifth by launching a 419-foot homer into the second deck beyond the left-field wall.
Guthrie recovered from the two-run fourth by getting six outs in a row before issuing a two-out walk to Willingham in the sixth after jumping ahead 0-2 in the count. Morneau then pulled a 2-0 breaking ball into the right-field corner.
Johnson took a relay from Lough and threw a dart to the plate that nailed Willingham on a bang-bang play that kept the deficit at one run.
It was a terrific defensive play, but neither Lough nor Johnson could follow it up with a base hit in the seventh with runners at first and third.