HOUSTON | A little etiquette help here, please. When presented with an unexpected gift, is the proper response to just flat refuse to take it?
If so, the Royals acted properly Thursday in their 5-4 loss to the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.
For here was the chance for the Royals to register their first sweep in a road series since last September. The Astros tried to make it easy, too, by playing defense with the sort of organized precision of preschoolers coloring within the lines.
“We had every opportunity to sweep this series,” manager Trey Hillman agreed, “and we didn’t take advantage of it.” The Royals permitted three different leads to slip away, including two that were absolutely gift-wrapped.
The biggest problem was Brian Bannister, 5-5, couldn’t keep Lance Berkman in the park. Berkman hit a pair of two-run homers into the ultra-reachable Crawford Boxes atop the scoreboard wall in left field. “I let a smart veteran hitter use his ballpark to his advantage,” Bannister said. “It was pretty obvious which direction he was trying to hit the ball, and I didn’t force him to make an adjustment. I put that on me.”
Berkman’s homers were his 15th and 16th of the season and turned one-run deficits into one-run leads. He also contributed a single in the fourth that forged a 3-3 tie.
That amounted to most of the damage against Bannister, who allowed five runs and six hits in six innings.
“He was trying to get the ball in all three times on Berkman,” Hillman said, “and he left the ball right in his joy zone on the outer third of the plate. He used that left field porch to his advantage.”
Houston starter Brian Moehler yielded just one earned run in five innings, but four overall and trailed 4-3 when he departed for a pinch hitter. So the victory went to Wesley Wright, who entered the game with a 6.06 ERA.
Wright, 2-1, faced five hitters and struck out four.
The Houston bullpen protected the lead over the final three innings with José Valverde atoning for a blown save Wednesday by breezing through the ninth.
The loss dropped the Royals to 31-40, and they now find themselves 9½ games behind first-place Detroit in the American League Central Division. And, really, this is one loss they should be kicking themselves over.
The Royals opened the scoring on Mark Teahen’s RBI single in the second, but Houston answered immediately. Lee led off the bottom of the inning with a double before Berkman sliced a full-count fastball into the Crawford Boxes. “Off the bat,” left fielder David DeJesus said, “I’m going back thinking, `I’m going to get this one.’ Then it’s like, `Wait, hold on.’ I see the wall there. And it not like the ball is landing off the back wall (of the stadium).
“It’s three or four rows deep. Or two rows deep.”
Now we get to the gift offers and the ultimate refusal to accept them. Alberto Callaspo led off the fourth inning with a grounder back to the mound that Moehler deflected into an infield single.
José Guillen followed with a potential double-play grounder to third, but the throw from Jeff Keppinger was high, pulling second baseman Kaz Matsui off the base and disrupting Matsui’s throw to first.
Both runners were safe.
Mike Jacobs then pulled a sharp grounder to first, another potential double-play ball, but shortstop Miguel Tejada mishandled the throw from Berkman. Callaspo scored the tying run while the other runners were safe at first and second.
Teahen’s double into the left-center gap scored Guillen for a 3-2 lead and moved Jacobs to third. The runners held when Miguel Olivo grounded to second before an intentional walk to Mitch Maier loaded the bases.
The strategy worked when Bannister, after fouling off a squeeze attempt, grounded into an inning-ending double play.
“We put a two-spot up when we should have put a four-spot up,” Hillman said. “We’ve got to get more than that two-spot in the fourth inning.”
Again, the Astros quickly counter-punched in their half of the inning.
Lee worked back from an 0-2 count for a leadoff walk and went to second on Berkman’s single. Both runners advanced on Hunter Pence’s fly to center before Matsui tied the game with a sacrifice fly.
The Royals regained the lead in the fifth by again capitalizing of Houston mistakes.
DeJesus led off with a walk and went to third on Willie Bloomquist’s hit-and-run single, which somehow eluded Matsui. Bloomquist took second, but DeJesus held third, on Callaspo’s grounder to first.
Then it got strange.
Guillen hit a fly to short right. DeJesus tagged and bluffed a charge home. The bluff drew a strong throw from Pence -- and fooled Bloomquist, who tagged and raced to third. So the Royals were trapped with one guy at third and another one soon to get there.
Houston trumped that mistake when catcher Humberto Quintero threw to second -- behind both runners -- and threw wildly. A leaping Tejada knocked the ball down, but DeJesus scored and Bloomquist was safe at third.
The Royals led 4-3.
It lasted until the sixth when Bannister issued another leadoff walk to Lee before yielding another two-run homer to Berkman. That ended the scoring.
“They didn’t play a clean game,” Teahen said, “but they still had Berkman -- and he knows this field. We put ourselves in a position to win, and it just didn’t pan out.”
Yes. Thanks, but no thanks.