CLEVELAND – The trajectory of the drive brought Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera to his knees. He buckled on the mound, peered up as Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis’ go-ahead double flew into the outfield and watched a game perish in a 5-3 loss.
The bedrock of the Royals consists of their defense and their bullpen. Both units proved faulty on Wednesday. A two-pronged gaffe cost them the lead in the sixth. Herrera wore the loss for his performance in the seventh. Wade Davis yielded an additional run in the eighth. The offense remains a work in progress.
“That’s baseball,” manager Ned Yost said. “It’s never going to be easy. It’s always going to be tough. You’ll have your occasional game where you’ll score a bunch of runs.”
The Royals (10-10) experienced that joy on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was back to the grind. They return to Progressive Field on Thursday afternoon looking to salvage a split of this four-game series. The team has now lost three of its last four.
At the outset, the Royals appeared on their way to another successful evening. Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas traded solo shots in the second inning, booming the team’s first back-to-back homers since July 4, 2013. Jason Vargas weathered another inclement evening to record his fifth quality start in five appearances as a Royal.
Granted a one-run lead in the sixth, an advantage caused by Moustakas’ RBI single in the top of the frame, Vargas allowed a one-out single to outfielder Michael Brantley. Soon after, the team’s vaunted defense betrayed him.
The kinetic chain of disaster began with Brantley’s speed. He benefited from a tremendous jump and stole second base. To complicate matters, Perez’s throw skipped past second baseman Omar Infante.
“I think I flipped the ball to my hand, and I didn’t have a good grip on the ball,” Perez said. “So I tried to throw a perfect throw, and the ball just bounced. And it went into center field.”
The ball vaulted high into the outfield. Jarrod Dyson charged forward, hoping to throw out Brantley at third base. On its second bounce, the ball bounded past Dyson’s glove. Brantley kept going all the way home.
Dyson matched a career high with three hits, but the personal achievement did not comfort him. He chastised himself for not considering the situation. There were two outs in the inning, and Vargas would induce a ground out from catcher Yan Gomes to finish the at-bat two pitches later.
“That’s a fine line for me, because my game is always full speed,” Dyson said. “I’ve just got to remind myself just slow it down a little bit.”
Yost defended Dyson’s decision. In retrospect, Dyson indicated he did not have a chance to get Brantley at third. But Yost did not want to curtail his defense’s aggressiveness.
“You can’t play to lose,” Yost said. “You can’t play to cover your (rear). You play to win. That’s the name of the game: You play to win. And when you play to win, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Still, Yost understood the magnitude of the play. Vargas finished the sixth at 100 pitches. Had the Royals held the lead, Yost said, he may have sent Vargas out to start the seventh. Instead, he turned to Herrera to protect the tie.
Herrera stumbled into danger with expediency. Michael Bourn grounded a one-out single up the middle. In this moment, the defensive prowess of the Royals was once again evident. Perez threw out Bourn at second base.
Herrera was one out away from escape. But Nick Swisher punched a single into right. Facing Kipnis, Herrera spotted a 98-mph fastball at the knees. Kipnis punished Herrera for allowing the ball to catch a decent amount of the plate.
“It was a pretty darn good pitch,” Yost said. “You kind of take your hat off to them.”