Kansas City Royals

Royals can’t solve Rays’ pitching

Who knows what kind of pitching the Royals will encounter in an upcoming four-game series in Boston but, Sweet Cecily, it can’t get much tougher than the last three days against Tampa Bay.

James Shields pitched the Rays to a 5-3 victory in Wednesday’s matinee series finale at Tropicana Field by shackling the Royals for much of the day in much the same manner as Jeremy Hellickson and David Price in the two previous games.

“That’s what those guys do – they pitch,” said third baseman Mike Moustakas, who went zero for 11 in the series with five strikeouts and a walk. “We faced three of the best that they’ve got. And they’ve got more. It’s just a tough series.”

Another player muttered: “We’re getting ready to face (Jon) Lester and (Josh) Beckett (in Boston), and they might seem like cupcakes after these guys.”

That’s an exaggeration – probably – but the Royals know they’re lucky they didn’t get swept. They scored one run in each of the first two games before mounting a late flurry that fell short in Wednesday’s loss.

Tampa Bay has allowed one or fewer runs in 14 of its last 28 games; two or fewer runs in 19 of its last 32 games; and three or fewer runs in 30 of 38 games since the All-Star break. The Rays are 18-6 with a 1.81 ERA over their last 24 games.

“These guys,” manager Ned Yost said, “they’ve got tremendous pitching – starting pitching and bullpen. It’s a team you don’t want to come in and play because they’re managed well, they play the game right and their pitching is just phenomenal.”

Shields (12-7) allowed two runs and five hits in 7 2/3 innings, which marked his fifth straight start of permitting three or fewer runs. The Royals got the tying run on base later in the eighth against the Rays’ bullpen but couldn’t complete the comeback.

Tampa Bay pushed its lead back to two runs when José Lobaton opened the bottom of the eighth with a homer against Aaron Crow. Fernando Rodney closed out Shields’ victory by pitching a scoreless ninth for his 39th save in 41 chances.

“Overall, I thought I kept them off-balance,” Shields said. “My delivery has been really, really low (in the zone) since the beginning of the month. And my change-up is back in action. It’s going north-south instead of side-to-side. So that’s good.”

Royals starter Luis Mendoza, meanwhile, never found a comfort zone with Scott Barry’s strike zone. Mendoza (7-9) walked four before exiting after 4 1/3 innings and often worked behind in the count.

“I struggled with my command today,” he said. “I tried to pound my sinker, but it was moving too much, maybe. It was moving inside against righties. I kept falling behind in the count. I was behind all day.”

Mendoza limited the damage to two runs, but Yost made an early call to the bullpen.

“He just wasn’t quite as sharp,” Yost said. “His command was off a little bit and, with an off-day (Thursday), we’ve got a full pen. With Shields on the mound, you know you can’t give them too much leeway.

“I just decided I was going to (try to) keep it at two, but the tack-on runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth did us in.”

Even so, the Royals made it interesting after Yost was ejected in the eighth for talking from the bench after Barry called a third strike on Eric Hosmer for the inning’s first out.

Hosmer beefed at what replays suggested was a borderline call before walking away. Yost piped up when Barry stared into the dugout and got the thumb…and the Royals then climbed back into the game.

Johnny Giavotella punched a single up the middle and scored on Alcides Escobar’s two-out triple into the left-center gap. That finished Shields, and Alex Gordon followed by lining an RBI single against reliever Jake McGee.

The lead was down to 4-3.

Tampa Bay called on ex-Royal Kyle Farnsworth, who ended the inning by retiring Billy Butler on a grounder back to the mound. Lobaton’s homer against Crow made it easier for Rodney in the ninth.

“I was looking for a fastball,” Lobaton said. “He threw it with the first pitch, but I was kind of late. I think he then threw me a fastball, then a curveball, and I said, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to get the fastball (again).’”

The Royals actually opened the scoring after Salvy Perez’s one-out double in the second inning. That was the Royals’ first extra-base hit of the series. He moved to third on Moustakas’ grounder to first before Francoeur delivered a two-out RBI single.

Tampa Bay answered with a two-run third after B.J. Upton lined a one-out single to left. Matt Joyce blooped a single into center, and Upton went to third when Lorenzo Cain misplayed the ball for an error. Mendoza loaded the bases by hitting Evan Longoria.

Ben Zobrist’s high foul pop up the right-field line fell between three players – Francoeur appeared to have the best shot – for what was ruled no play. Zobrist cashed the reprieve with a sacrifice fly to left that scored Upton with the tying run.

Jeff Keppinger followed with a line-drive single past Mendoza’s head into center field for a 2-1 lead.

Mendoza exited with one out in the fifth after walks put runners at first and second, but Louis Coleman got Keppinger to ground into a double play. Coleman paid for his own walk to start the sixth when Ryan Roberts drilled a double into the left-center gap.

The Rays pushed their lead to 4-1 in the seventh against Kelvin Herrera. Longoria led off with a single, and pinch-runner Sam Fuld raced to third on Zobrist’s double to right. Fuld scored when Escobar whiffed at second on Francoeur’s throw from the corner.