The pitch made Danny Valencia flinch. It was a curveball from Indians starter Corey Kluber, but Valencia could not know that. He moved to avoid the baseball only to watch it plummet into the upper edge of the strike zone, a cruel offering from a bully on the mound.
Valencia trudged back to Royals dugout, muttering at the umpire’s decision in the seventh inning of a 4-1 Royals loss. Kluber went back to steamrolling his guests, which he did for 8 1/3 innings, overrunning a lineup that lacked veterans Billy Butler and Alex Gordon.
“He was phenomenal for them today,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “Everything he was throwing was nasty.”
Kluber operated all afternoon in dominant fashion. He kept the Royals off balance, challenged them with mid-90s fastballs, tormented them with sliders in the upper 80s, and, for good measure, sprinkled in the occasional curveball for the occasional called third strike. He fanned 10 and walked one.
The defeat cost the Royals (45-42) a chance to pick up their second series victory on this nine-game road trip. Instead they carry a 3-3 record thus far into the final leg against the Rays. They hope to shake off the bout of déjà vu experienced on Sunday.
Here at Progressive Field on April 24, Kluber dished the first complete game of his career, limiting the Royals to four hits and one unearned run. On Sunday, the Royals managed four hits. One was a solo home run by Moustakas. Another was a ninth-inning double by Eric Hosmer. The other two were infield singles.
Manager Ned Yost sat his two longest-tenured players on Sunday. Butler had appeared in all 86 games. Gordon had started 85, and had only missed one day because of a stomach virus in Detroit last month. Second baseman Omar Infante also rested his balky back, which is still a concern heading into the turf at Tropicana Field.
The reconfigured lineup acted as fodder for Kluber. They had bloodied him during last month’s 10-game winning streak. On Sunday they looked helpless once more.
His dominance coincided with a subpar effort from Danny Duffy. He gave up four runs in six innings, his most allowed in a start since May 28.
Duffy suffered the same fate as his rotation mate, Jeremy Guthrie. The Indians chopped away at Guthrie the night before for six runs in four innings. Like Guthrie, Duffy rode a string of success into Progressive Field. The good times ceased rolling on Sunday.
Duffy yielded seven runs in six June starts. Cleveland clubbed him for three runs in the second. An elevated changeup collided with Carlos Santana’s bat and soared over the right-field fence. After a single by Ryan Raburn, Duffy fed catcher Yan Gomes a 91-mph fastball. Duffy stared at the center-field wall for a few moments after Gomes cleared it.
“I didn’t really think he got it,” Duffy said. “But any ball that leaves the park is got.”
A misplaced slider by Kluber and a sweet swing from Moustakas allowed the Royals to offset some of the deficit. Moustakas cracked his 10th homer of the year, hooking the pitch around the right-field pole. “One of the few mistakes he made on the day,” Moustakas said.
The Indians recouped the run in the bottom of the frame. Duffy gave up three singles to erase the offense’s progress. Despite the occasional turmoil, he still struck out six.
“This was a good outing for Danny,” Yost said. “He kept us in the game. We were within striking distance.”
In theory, they were. In practice, Kluber rendered them helpless. The home run from Moustakas did not rattle him. He responded by icing Alcides Escobar the next at-bat with a 96-mph fastball at the knees. Salvador Perez, the club’s hottest hitter, struck out three times.
His last flailing was Kluber’s final at-bat. It occurred with no outs in the ninth, and Hosmer standing at second. Kluber spun a curveball that Perez swung through. A 95-mph fastball on the fists inspired the same result. The final pitch of Kluber’s day was another diving curve, and the final result was another whiff.
He walked off the mound to a standing ovation. Shortly thereafter, his opponents offered the verbal equivalent.
“It was a tough day for us,” Moustakas said. “You’ve just tip your hat to his performance today.”