Kansas City Royals

Rays rough up Royals ace Brad Keller in series opener

One day after a furious rally put the Royals ahead late only to fall in extra innings, they took an early lead and let it slip away in the final three innings to drop the first game of their series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

A three-run seventh inning changed the entire complexion of the night for Royals ace Brad Keller set the table for a 6-3 loss to the Rays in front of an announced 9,914 at Tropicana Field on Monday. The teams will continue the three-game set on Tuesday night.

“He was limiting his mistakes and his pitch count was in great shape,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “I thought he could go seven or eight innings with the lead.”

Keller, making his first start since having been ejected last Wednesday in Chicago, allowed five earned runs on seven hits and three walks in 6 1/3 innings. Five of the hits Keller gave up, including a home run, went for extra bases. He’d allowed just two runs through six innings.

“He started the seventh with 85 pitches,” Yost said. “He made a mistake to (Avisail) Garcia on the double. Then he gives up that little infield single and I still think he can get out of it with a strikeout and a double play. We just couldn’t do it.”

The Rays came into the week having lost four in a row, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox. The sweep marked the Rays’ first series loss of the season.

The Royals’ first three runs came via solo home runs off the bats of Alex Gordon, Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier — each punished offerings from Rays pitcher Yonny Chirinos. Chirinos came into the day with a 3-0 record. Soler’s fifth-inning home run tied him with Dozier for the team lead (six home runs) until Dozier went deep in the sixth inning for his seventh.

In four of his previous five games this season, Chirinos held opponents to one or zero runs. The Royals scored three in six innings.

Dozier also homered on Sunday in New York as part of the offensive explosion he’s experienced of late. Entering the day, Dozier had batted .447 with a .553 on-base percentage and an .868 slugging percentage in his previous 11 games. Dozier came out of the game in the eighth inning due to lower back spasms. He’s listed as day-to-day.

Dozier’s home run gave the Royals a 3-1 lead, but the Rays pulled within a run in the bottom of the sixth on Brandon Lowe’s RBI double to center field.

“I definitely felt good all night,” Keller said. “That was probably my best ability to command down and away. I’ve been working on some stuff mechanically-wise, especially after the last few, three outings where I’ve been walking a bunch of guys. Today definitely felt really good as far as command-wise. Just left a few mistake pitches.”

Keller ran into trouble in the seventh inning after the leadoff double by Garcia to left-center and a Kevin Kiermaier broken-bat single up the middle against a shifted defense. Kiermaier’s single put runners on the corners with no outs.

Daniel Robertson’s ground ball to second let Garcia score the tying run as the Royals took the out at second. The ball wasn’t hit sharply enough for a chance to turn two.

The next batter, Mike Zunino, blasted a 1-2 pitch from Keller high and deep to center field over the reach of center fielder Billy Hamilton who’d jumped up on the wall in an effort to make an unlikely grab. Zunino’s home run, his first of the season, gave the Rays a 5-3 lead.

“You know, a leadoff first-pitch double and then made good pitches to the next two guys,” Keller said. “Then I just left a ball over the middle of the plate. A guy sees one too many fastballs in an AB, he’s going to get it.”

After Jake Diekman struck out two batters to strand a runner on third base to end the three-run seventh, Rays slugger Yandy Diaz made the cushion three runs thanks to a solo homer off Royals reliever Scott Barlow in the eighth.

Dozier, who has been battling back stiffness since the start of the previous series in New York, said after the game that he hoped to be back in the lineup on Tuesday. He actually felt the spams in his back the at-bat before he hit the home run. He tried to loosen up and took some swings in the cage between at-bats.

“I still felt OK. I didn’t lose any power or anything,” Dozier said. “I told the trainers I wanted to at least give it one more shot. Then after the home run, it just didn’t feel good at all.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.