Jason Frasor whipped his head around as he expected to witness the second out of the 11th inning. The Kansas City defense had already delivered one astounding play in this inning and now, in Frasor’s eye, came another. Alcides Escobar sprinted from the infield dirt into left field in the final moments of a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs in 11 innings that removed the Royals from first place in the American League Central.
Escobar expected to catch the baseball. Yet the ball off the bat of Cubs reserve catcher David Ross drifted into no-man’s land, too shallow for left fielder Alex Gordon and deeper than Escobar presumed. He slid as he attempted an over-the-shoulder basket catch, only to see the game-winning hit fall inches shy of his glove. Escobar tangled up with Gordon to allow the go-ahead run to score.
“Off the bat, I thought we had him,” Frasor said. “I saw a bunch of guys run after it. It wasn’t meant to be.”
A glum group departed Wrigley Field on Sunday afternoon. The two teams split this rain-abbreviated series, but Kansas City (29-19) still finished 1-4 on this trip. They lost ground to the hard-charging Minnesota Twins, who continue to scorch into the summer.
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The Royals, meanwhile, have gone cold at the plate. The loss resided on the shoulders of Frasor and reliever Ryan Madson, who issued two walks to start the 11th, his second inning of work. But the offense served as the main culprit. The bats delivered only four hits, and went hitless as Cubs manager Joe Maddon emptied his bullpen from the seventh through the 10th.
The Royals still carried a one-run lead into the seventh inning. Manager Ned Yost stuck with Yordano Ventura for one batter too long. Ventura struck out six across seven one-run innings, but he yielded a game-tying hit in his last encounter of the day. The offense never rebounded, and the Royals were unable to hold off the Cubs forever.
In the 11th, Gordon delayed the inevitable when he threw out outfielder Dexter Fowler on first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s single into left. The umpires reviewed the call for three minutes and 15 seconds before replay confirmed the initial verdict.
But the Cubs still had two men on with one out. Frasor intentionally walked Starlin Castro. Ross redeemed himself after failing to come through in a similar spot two innings earlier.
“That was the perfect hit,” Escobar said.
In the ninth, Wade Davis executed a harrowing escape to keep the game alive. He yielded a one-out triple to Rizzo. After issuing an intentional walk to Castro, he pounced on a squeeze attempt by Ross. Next, Davis fanned Jorge Soler to maintain his season-long streak of scoreless innings.
On the last day of May, the two clubs played in conditions meant for March. The temperature was 47 degrees at first pitch. The rain from Saturday had departed, but the wind had not. The gusts flew in toward left center as the team clubs took the field in Federal League uniforms.
The Cubs wore the cream-colored duds of the Chicago Whales. The Royals dressed in the grays of the Kansas City Packers. Ventura took the mound firing fastballs at speeds that would have seemed unfathomable when the Federal League folded in 1915.
His counterpart on the mound, Tsuyoshi Wada, was something of a mystery to the Royals. The only member of the team ever to face him in the majors was backup catcher Drew Butera.
Wada earned acclaim during his career in Nippon Professional Baseball. He made his 16th start in the majors on Sunday. He stands 5-11 and utilizes a modest fastball. His delivery distorts the timing of hitters, as he hides his left arm behind his upraised front leg before firing toward the plate.
“I think it was just tough hitting conditions for both teams,” Gordon said. “Not a lot of hits came out of it today.”
The Royals never found a rhythm against Wada. They managed only two hits against him. But after he issued a two-out walk to Lorenzo Cain in the sixth, manager Joe Maddon pulled him. In came reliever Travis Wood, who promptly walked Salvador Perez. With Cain in scoring position, Gordon lined a single to left to record the 500th RBI of his career.
Because Wada is a southpaw, Yost elected to rest left-handed hitters Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. The previous day’s postponement did not alter his approach. Christian Colon replaced Moustakas at third. Kendrys Morales entered the field for the first time this season.
The defensive downgrade did not bother Ventura. He mowed through his hosts with ease. The Cubs failed to time his fastball, and Ventura accumulated strikeouts with his change-up and curveball. Through six innings, Ventura let only three Cubs on base.
“He just had everything going,” Yost said. “He had a really good curveball. Throwing strikes with his fastball. And mixed in some great change-ups. He was really good.”
In the seventh, Yost faced a conundrum. Ventura was due to bat third. Kansas City clung to a one-run lead. Yost possessed a full bullpen given the inactivity on Saturday. If a runner reached base, he explained later, he would have pinch-hit for Ventura. But after two quick outs, Ventura flailed at two pitches and struck out on a third.
Ventura waded into the seventh. Shortstop Starlin Castro smoked a line drive into the gap in left-center field, but Alex Gordon ran it down. Ventura picked up a 1-2 count on catcher Miguel Montero only to lose him on a walk. A wild pitch scooted Montero into scoring position, and Maddon inserted reserve Jonathan Herrera as a pinch runner.
Ventura stood two outs away from seven scoreless innings. He would finish one inning shy. He froze outfielder Jorge Soler with a 98-mph fastball on the outer lip of the plate for his sixth strikeout of the day. As Kelvin Herrera warmed up down the right-field line, Yost let Ventura face outfielder Chris Coghlan.
Asked why he stuck with Ventura, Yost was succinct. “He was throwing the ball good,” he said. “He was throwing the ball well.”
Heading into the at-bat, Ventura had yielded three hits. Two emanated from Coghlan’s bat. Coghlan’s third hit came after Ventura left a change-up over the middle. Coghlan smashed it into center field and scored the runner. He was thrown out trying to reach second base, but he had tied the game.
“(Coghlan had) hit the curveball before in one of the at-bats,” said Colon, who translated for Ventura. “He’d hit the fastball in one of the at-bats earlier. So he hadn’t seen the change-up. (Ventura) just kind of threw it and left it up, and he put a good swing on it and found the gap.”
Four innings later, the Royals could hold the line no longer. They will depart the Windy City in second place, a position they have not occupied since May 8. This loss stung.
“Heartbreak city,” Frasor said. “Heartbreak city.”