MINNEAPOLIS | Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that the Royals closed their sizzling September with a clunker Sunday afternoon in a 6-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins at the Metrodome.
It serves a gentle reminder as the off-season dawns that much work remains before this latest rebuilding plan creates a genuine playoff contender.
This was a small step backward, complete with the sort of botches and blunders that characterized too much of this season. Two throwing errors on routine plays. One dropped catch on a play at the plate. And one major mental mistake.
“It’s been a great month of September,” manager Trey Hillman said. “I’m not going to say it was a sour ending. I would have liked to have played better, but we faced a really good pitcher who we haven’t matched up well against.”
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Even a crisp, clean effort might not have mattered because right-hander Scott Baker, 11-4, provided the Twins with the pick-me-up they needed after losses in the first two games.
Baker pitched seven innings while yielding four hits. He matched a career high with nine strikeouts while walking just one. José Mijares pitched a scoreless eighth before Joe Nathan completed the shutout.
“Baker was good today,” third baseman Alex Gordon said. “That’s about it.”
The victory kept the Twins one-half game ahead of second-place Chicago, which beat Cleveland 5-1. The White Sox must win a makeup game today against the Tigers to force a one-game playoff Tuesday against the Twins in Chicago for the division title.
“It’s up to them,” Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. “It’s all on their shoulders now.”
Royals starter Brandon Duckworth, 3-3, scrambled though six trouble-filled innings — much of the trouble coming from beyond his control. He allowed just two runs, one earned, and two hits while striking out five and walking four.
It meant the rotation closed the season with 13 quality starts in the last 14 games.
“He went out there and gave us six quality innings,” Hillman said. “We just didn’t play as crisp as we should have.”
Ryan Shealy and Billy Butler each committed throwing errors from first base. Catcher John Buck dropped a throw from Gordon on what should have been a force at home in the third inning.
Reliever Ron Mahay hasn’t been sharp since returning earlier this month from a foot injury. His slide continued after he inherited a 2-0 deficit from Duckworth to start the seventh.
Alexi Casilla and Joe Mauer opened the inning with singles. Justin Morneau struck out, but Mahay loaded the bases by walking pinch-hitter Michael Cuddyer.
Leo Nuñez replaced Mahay and yielded a two-run single to Delmon Young, which pushed the lead to 4-0. That was plenty, but the Twins tacked on two more in the eighth on Mauer’s two-out triple.
The Royals mustered just five hits after collecting at least 11 in each of their five previous games. Alberto Callaspo’s hitting streak ended at 18 games when he went hitless in four at-bats. Gordon’s 12-game run ended in a zero-for-three.
The loss closed out an otherwise uplifting 18-8 month that enabled the Royals to post their best record since 2003 at 75-87. It also prevented them from guaranteeing their first escape from last place in five years.
“It’s a step forward,” Duckworth said, “but in certain aspects we are still a little disappointed. To go out there and play like we did this last month showed the character of this club.”
The Royals continue to lead the Tigers by one-half game, but Detroit can forge a tie by winning today in Chicago.
Mostly though, this was simply a sour end to a good run.
The low point came in the third inning when the Royals trailed just 1-0. Mitch Maier lost count of the outs while on second base when Callaspo lofted a routine one-out fly to center.
Maier took off and kept running, as if there were two outs, and the result was an easy double play. It also took an RBI chance away from José Guillen.
“We wanted to finish with a win,” Gordon said, “but it’s hard to sweep a series on the road — especially against a good team. But we’re not going to let this one game affect what was a good month.”