Manager Ned Yost has fashioned a leash for Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie that extends beyond the patience of the restless, beyond the reach of those clamoring for change after a miserable month of pitching.
It is a stance Yost must take, in deference to Guthrie’s veteran status and his resume as a Royal. It is a stance that will be tested, should Guthrie’s spring performance bleed into the summer.
In the wake of Sunday’s 6-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers, Guthrie inflated his ERA to 6.52 in five outings. A reporter mentioned this fact to Yost.
“It’s the third day in May,” Yost replied.
It was, and the Royals still resided a half-game behind the Tigers in the American League Central. But as the two clubs split a four-game series, one complete with three sellouts at Kauffman Stadium to close the weekend, the finale underscored the most obvious concern for the Royals as they defend their American League crown.
Kansas City, 16-9, exhibits a lively lineup to complement its splendid defense and relentless relief pitching. It is the starting rotation that still gives reason for pause, a plight personified by the efforts of Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie in the season’s first month. Vargas will have a chance to stabilize his season Tuesday against Cleveland.
On Sunday, Guthrie reported incremental progress with the accuracy of his command and the vigor of his arsenal. Detroit still pounded him for six runs, the last two on a homer by slugger Miguel Cabrera in the fifth inning.
Guthrie intended to bury a change-up outside the strike zone. Instead, the pitch charted a misguided course over the plate’s heart, and “it hung right there,” Guthrie said.
“A guy like Miggy, he doesn’t miss that pitch.” catcher Salvador Perez said.
The home run dumped Kansas City into a six-run deficit against Tigers pitcher Anibal Sanchez, who did not allow a base runner in the first five innings. The Royals clawed back to a respectable finish with two-run rallies in the seventh and eighth innings.
With two outs in the eighth, Eric Hosmer represented the tying run. Hosmer tried to check his swing on a 1-2 slider from Tigers reliever Tom Gorzelanny. From behind the plate, umpire Dale Scott ruled Hosmer went around. Hosmer protested the call to no avail, and the Royals breathed their last gasp.
After the game, Yost praised his club for not folding. He is an optimist by nature and a defender of his players by profession. He delivered praise for Guthrie, despite the gloomy results, and continues to brush aside the possibility of replacing him in the rotation. An obvious alternative, Chris Young, resides only a few lockers away from Guthrie. But Yost has yet to waver in his faith.
“Jeremy Guthrie was one of the better pitchers we had on this staff in the second half,” Yost said. “Hitters have slumps and pitchers have slumps. And you have to allow them, especially when they’re veteran guys, to work through slumps.”
Guthrie stumbled through a miserable July in 2014 and posted a 10.07 ERA in four starts. He rebounded and finished the season with a 3.06 ERA in his final 11 outings. In the process, he fortified his standing with Yost.
Yet the evidence in 2015 does not benefit Guthrie. Facing this same club on Friday, Young yielded zero hits in five innings and struck out nine Tigers.
Guthrie struck out just one Sunday. He conceded this season has not begun with “a great start at all for me,” but maintained confidence in his ability to recover.
“I felt much, much better than I have the past couple of starts,” Guthrie said. “I wish it could have translated into getting more outs and being more effective. But certainly I was able to do much more with my pitches today. I felt like my movement was much better, my location was much better, overall.”
Both Guthrie and Yost opted to credit Detroit’s hitters for their prowess and ability to spoil difficult pitches. The Tigers fetched their first run on two pitches Guthrie did not regret. Outfielder Yoenis Cespedes excavated a change-up that burrowed toward his knees for a double. Guthrie placed a sinker on the outside corner to catcher Alex Avila, but Avila still laced an RBI single into left.
Two innings later, the Tigers loaded the bases with three ingles. This time, Avila pulled a single into right field on a 2-0 fastball. Paulo Orlando fumbled while fielding the ball, which allowed the bases to clear.
“Today was a better day of execution,” Guthrie said. “And a worse day, in terms of results and getting people out.”
The home run by Cabrera sealed Kansas City’s fate. The Royals rallied and made the score competitive, but the hole was too deep.
In five outings this season, Guthrie has allowed at least four runs on four occasions. His other performance was a five-inning, three-run skirmish with the Minnesota Twins. His statistics are unsightly, a reality the club cannot ignore if they remain that way.
But on Sunday, Yost had little reason to suggest anything but resurgence is around the corner. He will stick with Guthrie and wait for a revival.
“These guys work really, really hard,” Yost said. “When they’re going through periods like this, they continue to work hard. And they’ll figure it out.”