The eyes of Alex Gordon watered as he choked down a bite of apple. A coughing fit had interrupted him as considered a 6-0 Royals loss, a three-game sweep by the Boston Red Sox and a return to a sub-.500 record. When he resumed speaking, bile flowed from his mouth, the only sound of distress inside the otherwise milquetoast clubhouse of a third-place team.
“It’s frustrating, but we deserve it the way we’ve been playing,” Gordon said. “After losing two tough games, you think we’d come out with a little more intensity and energy. But we didn’t. That’s not how good teams play. We need to look in the mirror, and figure it out.”
The reflection does not appear pretty, not for a club projected to snap Kansas City’s 29-year playoff drought. Nipped for one-run losses the previous two nights at Fenway Park, the Royals (48-49) looked lifeless for Sunday’s coda. Jon Lester bullied them during eight spotless innings. Yordano Ventura combusted for one of the worst performances of his career, yielding a career-high six runs in 41/3 innings.
And the Royals continued their downward tumble. Since their 10-game winning streak last month ended, the team has dropped 17 of 26. The sands fall in the season’s hourglass each day, only 65 games remain in the season, and the prospect of October looks bleaker and bleaker.
On camera, manager Ned Yost maintains his composure. But Sunday’s result compelled him to address his players before boarding a flight to Chicago to face White Sox ace Chris Sale on Monday. The meeting lasted about five minutes. His tone was stern but not fiery, according to people in the room. “He said what needed to be said,” Gordon said.
With reporters a short while later, Yost grasped for optimism. He credited Lester for an outstanding performance. He stressed “the world is not coming to an end.” His faith in his players cannot be publicly broken, even if at times that faith has gone unrewarded.
“I’m not taking the negative route, and worrying that things are slipping away,” Yost said. “We’ll get it going.”
He has espoused these platitudes before. Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer offered similar praise for Lester, a three-time All Star. It was left to Gordon to provide a critical take on the situation.
“We can’t put ourselves in too big of a hole,” Gordon said. “We need to take every day as the last day. Because if Detroit keeps winning, and other teams keep winning, and we keep putting ourselves in the hole, it’s going to be too late.”
Despite idyllic conditions at Fenway Park, the weekend ended in dreary fashion. Yost bungled his bullpen management on Friday and cost his club a victory. The offense no-showed for Saturday’sdefeat. On Sunday, the starting pitcher joined the absentee list. “We didn’t really do a lot well this weekend,” Butler said.
Before the game, the players settled into their familiar routines. Greg Holland and Aaron Crow peered at their crossword puzzles. Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson discussed strategy in the iPad game “Clash of Clans.” Danny Duffy bobbed his head to a Lady Gaga song piping out of his phone.
Inside the manager’s office, the discontent was more evident. A strained groin muscle had felled catcher Salvador Perez, and the threadbare lineup lost a key contributor for the day. “What can you do?” Yost said, laughing, flummoxed by his offense’s inability to ignite in 2014.
“It’s consistently inconsistent,” he continued. “We go and play [and it’s like], ‘Man, here we go.’ And then we go through stretches it’s like ‘Man, are we ever going to score a run?’ ”
The missed opportunities vexed him, and the lack of fundamental execution disturbed him. The team struggles to hit with runners in scoring position. During this series in Boston, they’ve failed to even make productive outs in those situations. “We’re not playing good situational offensive baseball,” he said.
Yost cannot discern the root of the troubles. Is it the vagaries of youth?
“We’ve said that for years and years,” he said. “That’s kind of a tired excuse.”
The coaches? The team already switched hitting instructors in May.
“There’s nothing we can do to prepare them better,” Yost said on Friday. “We’ve got the best coaching staff in baseball.”
Thus the burden falls on the players, no longer considered neophytes, to produce. They failed to do so on Sunday. Lester operated with ease. He struck out eight and scattered four hits. The Royals did not advance a runner to third base until the sixth inning.
By then, the outing was all but decided. In the third inning, Ventura explained afterward, his command evaporated. He walked catcher David Ross and gave up a single to rookie Jackie Bradley, Jr. Two batters later, Daniel Nava hooked a two-run double into the right field corner.
At this point, considering Lester’s dominance, the outcome looked just about decided. Ventura elected to remove all doubt. He fed Ross a 97-mph fastball at the waist in the fourth, and Ross boomed it over The Green Monster for a two-run shot.
“Fastball down the middle,” Ventura said. “A little bit up. Good swing.”
Ventura gave up another run Yost left him to labor through the fifth. Ventura loaded the bases with two walks and a single, before reliever Francisley Bueno helped the Royals escape the jam and protected Ventura’s sullied ledger.
Ventura matched a career-high with nine hits allowed. Sunday marked the first time he did not strike out a batter in a start since a game on July 2, 2009 in the Dominican Summer League.
Ventura did not appear perturbed. He vowed to return stronger for his next start. In that sense, he echoed the sentiments of his two-time All Star left fielder. To Gordon, the time for rhetoric has ceased.
“We do have the talent,” Gordon said. “But we need to show it on the field. Right now, these last three games, we haven’t. So then it’s all talk.”