KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Alcides Escobar waved his left arm and spiked his helmet. He turned away as the protective cap bounced past home-plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth and onto the infield grass as a final, futile gesture in a 4-2 Royals loss Saturday to the Rangers.
Culbreth declared Escobar could not check his swing on the last pitch of the game, a slider in the dirt from Texas reliever Shawn Tolleson. The ball skittered away, but Escobar did not run to first. He planted his feet and begged Culbreth to verify the call with the first-base umpire. Culbreth told Escobar he did not need to confirm his ruling.
As Escobar departed the field, manager Ned Yost hustled from the dugout to argue. The rest of the Royals (30-23) reacted with a mixture of anger and resignation. Mike Moustakas barked at the umpires from the on-deck circle. Alex Gordon hung his arms over the railing and watched the Rangers complete the customary post-game handshake line. The Royals have indulged in this baseball rite only twice in their last 11 games.
“We’re just simply not getting it done right now,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “That’s all there is to it. We’ve got to clean it up.”
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Since their 7-0 start, the Royals have now played eight weeks of .500 baseball. The toothless at-bats continue to pile up as the losing spell expands. The Royals could locate a few positives from their outing on Saturday. A solo home run by Salvador Perez in the ninth cut the deficit to two. Escobar represented the tying run when he struck out in the ninth.
Yet the facts remain: This team has scored more than two runs only twice in their last 11 games. Wandy Rodriguez, the southpaw, confounded them for seven innings of one-run baseball. To Yost, Rodriguez offered a counterexample to hard-throwing, erratic 24-year-old Yordano Ventura, who lasted only three innings on Saturday.
“Wandy was throwing it up there at 88, 89 mph,” Yost said. “Ventura was throwing it up there at 98, 99 mph. The difference between the two, and the reason that Wandy won today, is because Wandy works down and he works on the corners.”
Ventura (3-5, 4.62 ERA) could accomplish neither of those objectives on Saturday. He could not command his fastball and he did not miss many bats. The Rangers jabbed him in the first two innings and Ventura looked shaken.
“He was a little wild at first,” said Christian Colon, who translated for Ventura. “He felt like he settled down a little bit. It was just one of those days where it wasn’t working.”
Ventura alternates between brilliant and bumbling. He gave up five runs on 10 hits to these Rangers on May 13. Six days later he blanked the Reds for seven innings. St. Louis clipped him for four runs on May 24. Ventura rebounded with a seven-inning gem against the Cubs. He vacillated back to the bad side on Saturday.
To the Royals, Ventura betrayed his age in his brief performance. He radiated unhappiness, wandering behind the mound at times, enough to cause visits from teammates like Mike Moustakas and Perez.
Unable to harness his command, Ventura pouted inside the dugout. His body language was visible to his teammates. After the second inning, Hosmer sidled up to Ventura inside the dugout. He told Ventura he understood his frustration. The entire team felt the same, he said, because “we’re going through a rough time right now,” but they could not let the other team see their frustration.
“I was just trying to tell him to focus in and do his best on eating up some innings for us,” Hosmer said. “There’s a lot of game left.”
Ventura listened, but his body did not cooperate. Texas picked up runs in the first on an RBI single by Mitch Moreland and a sacrifice fly from Elvis Andrus.
Ventura hit Carlos Corporan to start the second and yielded a first-pitch double to a rookie named Hanser Alberto. Three pitches later, Shin-Soo Choo tagged a two-run double. Ventura had thrown 78 pitches through three innings, and Yost decided he had seen enough.
“Eighty pitches in three is a huge workload for a young man,” Yost said. “We just didn’t want to push it. You’re borderline getting into dangerous situations when you get that type of workload in three innings. That’s a lot of pitches.”
The play of Ventura left the Royals down four runs with seven innings to go. In another lifetime, perhaps back in the first week of April or during a blissful homestand last month, the club could have scaled this hill. On Saturday the deficit felt like a Himalayan peak.
The Royals skidded into the game with only 20 runs in their past 10 games. Eight of those occurred on one windswept afternoon at Wrigley Field. Friday represented the nadir. A rookie named Chi Chi Gonzalez shut out the Royals and limited them to three hits in the second start of his career.
“Everybody wants to know, ‘OK, you’re in a slump. How do you get out of it?’” Yost said before the game. “Well, if somebody figures that out, let me know. Because if there’s a way to get out of it, you implement it.”
The diagnosis for the slump is simple but devastating. The players appear to lack timing at the plate, which leads to poor pitch selection and brief at-bats. To Yost, this anxiety can be contagious.
“When you’re not hitting, that puts more pressure on everybody, because ‘I’ve got to be the man,’” he said. “Which actually prolongs the process. You just have to sit back, individually, and everybody relax and just try to go up and have one good at-bat, this at-bat.”
The cold streak has infected all nine occupants of the batting order, so Yost felt he lacked many options for a lineup shakeup. He did sit second baseman Omar Infante in favor of Colon, and he did grant a day off to Alex Rios. Otherwise, he preached patience.
“We went on a six-week tear as a group,” Yost said. “We’ll get back there again. Everybody tends to panic a little bit when you go through these things. But there’s no easy fixes. There’s no easy answers. You just work through it.”
Jarrod Dyson, the replacement for Rios, rewarded Yost with a three-hit day. He sliced a sixth-inning double to open the sixth against Rodriguez. Two batters later, Moustakas singled him home. But with two on and two out, Kendrys Morales rolled an 89-mph fastball from Rodriguez into Andrus’ glove at shortstop.
The Royals would not bring the tying run to the plate against until the ninth. Perez walloped a 95-mph fastball from Tolleson for his seventh home run of the season. Dyson singled and advanced to second on the defensive indifference of the Rangers.
But Escobar flailed at a pair of sliders, both of them out of the zone, to finish the game. His pleas to Culbreth — “I’m telling him, ‘You can check with first base,’” Escobar said — went unanswered. The crowd jeered the umpires as they exited the field and some of the Royals seethed.
The prospect of a sweep hangs over the club’s head on Sunday. A lengthy road trip begins next week in Minneapolis. The Royals will greet the Twins, who they now look upward at in the standings of the American League Central.
“We’ve got to get a win and get some kind of momentum, especially heading into Minnesota,” Hosmer said. “Because if we play like this going into Minnesota, we’re in for a long series.”