At this point, the Royals are making a run at rewriting some of baseball’s favorite clichés. You know the one about momentum being only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher?
Right now, the Royals’ momentum is only as good as the next popup.
The Royals had so much going for them into the late innings on Sunday. Sidney Ponson pitched six scoreless innings, the Royals caught a chunk of good fortune when Rangers ace Kevin Millwood had to leave after just two innings, and that popup sure looked like an easy way to maintain a tied score.
But Alberto Callaspo lost the ball in the sun, found it, then had it bang off the heel of his glove. The rest of it came apart quickly from there, eventually turning into a 7-2 loss against the Rangers in front of 16,847 at Kauffman Stadium — another performance that made it difficult for whoever has to create the daily highlight tape making the Royals look good.
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“Good teams, when that does happen, the shrug it off and get that next out,” catcher John Buck said. “But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t (a letdown). We got the job done, against a good hitter, Ian Kinsler, got the pitch we wanted, got him out front, popped him up on the curveball and”
Callaspo’s error was the Royals’ fourth of the weekend series, 15th in their last 13 games, and 75th of the season. Only Seattle, Arizona and Washington have more.
If you were going to pick one game as the microcosm to the Royals’ 38-59 season so far, you could do worse than Sunday.
It started out encouraging enough before a solid performance from the starting pitcher was torched by shoddy defense and a weak bullpen, with the whole operation given little margin for error because of a remarkably ineffective offense.
“It always takes emotion out of you when you give up three unearned runs in one inning,” manager Trey Hillman said. “But it happens even more when you’ve only got a couple hits on the board and you’re just having a miserable time offensively doing anything.”
All three runs in the seventh inning were unearned, but Jamey Wright had three more shots at recording the final out before being replaced by Juan Cruz.
Cruz and Roman Colon combined to give up four more runs — each very earned on a homer, walk and three singles.
That pushed the bullpen’s season ERA to 5.04 or, put another way, a very long distance from the spring days when the unit was considered a strength.
“From (the dropped popup) on,” said Texas manager Ron Washington, “we were able to play the game we like to play. Stole some bases, put some balls in play, made some things happen.”
Meanwhile, the Royals’ offense went back to its worst-in-the-league act. They went 13 batters from the second to sixth innings without a baserunner, and only one of those outs made it to the outfield.
The Royals didn’t score until the seventh, when Mark Teahen walked, moved to second when John Buck got hit by a pitch, and scored on a single by Alex Gordon. They added a second run with two outs in the ninth.
There wasn’t much else the Royals did well on offense, collecting only two hits and two walks despite catching a major break when Rangers ace Kevin Millwood — who entered with a 3.44 ERA — left after the second inning with what’s being called a tight left glute.
Righty Dustin Nippert replaced Millwood, and took the Rangers into the seventh, giving up just the one run in 4 2/3 innings. It was the 37th time the Royals scored two or fewer runs.
“These guys, they feel the pressure in front of the hometown fans,” Hillman said. “They feel the disappointment. They know what they want, and they’re frustrated not being able to produce, especially the way the record sits right now and the collapse of the bullpen since we started past the All-Star break.”
All that wasted an effective start by Ponson, who pitched into and out of trouble most of the afternoon. He walked two and gave up a single in the first. Gave up a leadoff walk in the second, a leadoff single in the fourth, and a leadoff double in the sixth.
Ponson pitched six scoreless innings, giving up five hits and three walks to go along with four strikeouts. Whether the “effectively wild” label fits, Ponson was effective and he was a bit wild. He’d thrown more balls than strikes into the third inning, and finished the day with 57 strikes in 102 pitches.
Depending on how you judge, it may have been Ponson’s best start of the season. He gave up one run in 7 1/3 innings against the Mariners in May, and three runs in eight innings against the Tigers in April.
“Being in the league so long, I know most of these guys,” Ponson said. “If I don’t make the pitch the way I want to, if I want a fastball down and away and leave it down the middle, they’re going to hit it. Today, I was able, if I wanted to go down and away, if I missed it was off the plate. Those things help.”
It was the third consecutive good outing for a Royals starting pitcher against the Rangers, following Zack Greinke’s one run in seven innings on Friday and Luke Hochevar’s career-high 13 strikeouts in seven innings on Saturday.
The starting pitching has been one of the Royals’ few bright spots this season, giving the team reason to believe they can win most games.
But you know the cliché: momentum is only as good as the next popup.
“At this point, we haven’t exactly been earning a lot of support here,” Mark Teahen said. “I don’t exactly blame the fans. We haven’t really been playing that well.”