The fastball split the plate, but it froze Royals outfielder Whit Merrifield, who lingered inside the batter’s box for a few seconds before accepting the third-strike call. He had a bit of distraction as the ball left White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito’s hand, a runner attempting to steal second base.
But off he went.
As did so many others.
Giolito sent 11 Royals batters back to where they came from, a turnstile that eventually prompted manager Ned Yost’s ejection and a 2-0 White Sox victory Saturday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium.
“I don’t know what his numbers are against us, but I think he pretty much owns us,” Royals outfielder Alex Gordon said.
Giolito has owned the entirety of the American League this year, improving to 9-1, but he’s been especially brutal against the Royals over his career. He improved to 6-0 versus Kansas City, a 2.13 earned-run average in 10 starts.
The strikeouts Saturday set a career high in his out-dueling of Royals starter Brad Keller, who lasted eight innings. Many succumbed as Merrifield did, the bat not even leaving their shoulder. Giolito froze five hitters before closer Alex Colome froze another, including all three in the second inning, aided in part by a large strike zone.
Too large, Yost argued.
The Royals barked toward home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman a few times over the course of the afternoon, and in the sixth inning, Yost decided he’d had enough. After a first-pitch strike call on Alex Gordon below the knees, the Royals dugout yelled toward Dreckman, who halted play to instruct the argument to stop. Instead, Yost stepped out of the dugout.
Dreckman delivered the hook.
“Bruce wasn’t missing a bunch of calls that upset me (but) when these two guys are on their game, you’ve gotta be on your game because we need to take advantage of every opportunity that we get,” Yost said. “If (Giolito) doesn’t give us an opportunity, you take your hat off to him. But sometimes he makes pitches outside the zone that are called strikes and you don’t get that chance.”
Yost departed to a standing ovation from a crowd of 20,889. He has been ejected twice this season — both for arguing balls and strikes — and 35 times in his career. Well, arguing strikes mostly. There were a lot of them.
Twice, the Royals spanned an inning without putting a ball in play. Jorge Soler struck out looking three times, the K zone showing not all were strikes. The Royals (20-44) had just three hits in the game, all singles, two from Merrifield.
“He’s tough on everybody right now,” Yost said. “... Quite frankly, he’s developed himself into one of the best pitchers in this league.”
In search of their first series victory since April 12-14, the Royals will send Glenn Sparkman to the mound Sunday against Reynaldo Lopez.
The two will have a difficult time matching their predecessors. It took the outing from Giolito, who pitched into the eighth, to overshadow the one from Keller. In his fourth start for the Royals this season, Keller lasted eight innings and allowed only five hits, one walk and two runs, his outing tarnished only by Eloy Jimenez’s two-run homer in the second.
“His numbers don’t lie — he’s been throwing the ball really, really well,” Keller said of his counterpart. “You know it’s going to be a low-scoring game. Just try to limit them as much as possible and match him.”
The home run was all the support Giolito needed. He matched a career-high in strikeouts before the completion of the fifth inning and surpassed it the next hitter, prolonging a sharp one-year turnaround.
In 2018, nobody in baseball allowed more earned runs. Nobody walked more batters. His strikeout rate sat at 6.5 per nine innings.
Keller and Giolito combined for just 17 pitches in the opening frame. Keller threw just one ball. His stuff was good afterward, too — even the home-run pitch. Jimenez extended on a pitch up and away to deposit a baseball in the opposite-field bullpen. The ball traveled 372 feet, extending just past Merrifield, ready to time a leap at the right-field fence.
Keller had not allowed a home run in his previous 42 innings. He did not even allow an extra-base hit in his last three starts, one of them against the White Sox.
“He had the best slider that he had all year long,” Yost said. “His fastball was 93-95. He’s on a really good roll right now.”