KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A two-month string of brilliance ended with a thud, a wince and a howl in the eighth inning of a 5-4 Royals loss.
The thud occurred when a 93-mph cutter collided with the back of a batter’s left arm. The wince belonged to Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who absorbed the blow as he forced in the decisive run. The howl emanated from the mouth of Royals reliever Wade Davis, who had unleashed the misplaced pitch and in turn allowed his first run since April 23.
Before Wednesday, Davis had completed 20 appearances without wavering. He gave up only seven hits during the subsequent 22 1/3 innings. In the eighth inning on Wednesday, the Dodgers clapped a pair of singles off him. With two outs, Davis walked utility man Scott Van Slyke. When he lost the handle against Ellis, the Royals fell behind.
They could never recover, and so they dropped this rare series against the Dodgers. They had already weathered yet another rocky, unsteady outing from James Shields. He finished seven innings, but surrendered four runs in the process. His ERA increased to 3.79, the worst in the team’s rotation.
The irony of the situation pains the organization. Two winters ago, the Royals acquired Shields to instill competence, competitiveness and cohesion to their pitching staff. In his second season in Kansas City, Shields have devolved into the club’s least-reliable starter this month.
As they have so often in recent weeks, his teammates bailed him out to avoid hanging a loss on his resume. Lorenzo Cain mashed the team’s first leadoff home run this season, and Jarrod Dyson added his first homer since last June. Dyson launched his shot in the fifth inning, when the Royals erased a two-run deficit to tie the game. They booted Dan Haren from the mound in the process.
On Wednesday, the team received something of a reprieve. Haren is a three-time All Star, and still regarded as a capable starter. But he resides on a plane beneath Clayton Kershaw, who tormented his hosts the night before.
Kershaw blanked the Royals for eight innings. Haren’s shutout did not even last one at-bat. He fed Cain an 89-mph fastball at the belt. Cain thumped his third homer this season.
The lead was short-lived. In the second inning’s first at-bat, Matt Kemp boomed a solo home run, the 11th Shields had allowed in his last 11 starts.
After a superlative April, Shields has teetered for much of this season. Heading into Wednesday, opposing hitters posted an .872 on-base plus slugging percentage against him in previous 10 starts. To contextualize that statistic: Alex Gordon entered Wednesday with a team-best .818 OPS.
Shields is 32, and has logged at least 200 innings in seven consecutive seasons, and accumulated at least 215 in six of those. Even if his fastball velocity still clocks in its usual register, the receipt for all those innings can be found in his wayward command, rival talent evaluators explained.
“Sometimes that workload catches up to guys even if it doesn’t show up in velo,” one American League scout said.
In between starts, pitching coach Dave Eiland continues to counsel Shields about maintaining his balance on the mound. Manager Ned Yost lamented Shields’ lack of command.
“Throwing too many pitches,” he said on Wednesday afternoon. “Maybe just trying to be a little too fine.”
He also has been imminently hittable. He yielded a pair of extra-base knocks in the third. Dee Gordon raked the first, a one-out triple on a fastball down the middle. What followed infuriated the pitcher. When Shields attempted to pick off Gordon, crew chief Hunter Wendelstendt called him for a balk for stepping toward home plate.
Gordon scored, and Shields looked apoplectic. The umpires made a similar ruling in an identical situation on June 15 in Chicago. Yost talked his way into an ejection that day. This time, he watched from the dugout as Shields served up a triple to Yasiel Puig.
Puig, the 22-year-old Cuban, may be the game’s most compelling player. He displayed his talent in one 270-foot sprint. The baseball nestled into the left-field corner, and its slow carom off the wall cost Alex Gordon. Puig chugged around second base with little regard for Gordon’s Gold-Glove certified arm, and crashed head-first into the bag. He scored on a sacrifice fly soon after.
Gordon contributed as the Royals cobbled together a run in the fourth. The sequence was convoluted: Butler opened the frame with a single, but was erased at second on Gordon’s force out. Gordon stole second. He scored on a single to right by Moustakas. Puig came up firing, but catcher A.J. Ellis botched the catch. Otherwise, Gordon may have been out.
Puig reasserted himself in the fifth. He one-hopped an RBI double past Moustakas’ to swell the Dodgers’ lead back to two.