A rivalry burst into full bloom on Sunday afternoon, a newfound clash pitting the team that snapped North America’s longest playoff drought last October with the new owners of that dubious streak. For three games, the Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays traded rallies before rabid crowds at the Rogers Centre, building excitement for a potential rematch in October.
On Sunday, in a 5-2 Kansas City loss, the adrenalin overflowed into a collection of in-game shouting matches and postgame invective. The tension spiraled into a pair of Blue Jays ejections and a benches-clearing dust-up after Toronto reliever Aaron Sanchez hit Alcides Escobar in the eighth inning.
In the aftermath, Royals veteran Edinson Volquez sneered at the behavior of All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. After Volquez hit Donaldson in the first inning, Donaldson twice reacted with demonstrative anger when Kansas City pitchers continued to pitch inside.
“He’s a little baby,” Volquez said. “He was crying like a baby.”
The sentiment spread through the visitors’ clubhouse, as members of the Royals pitching staff decried Donaldson’s theatrics in the finale of this four-game series. Volquez and others, including reliever Ryan Madson, who also hit a batter and threw inside later at Donaldson, felt Donaldson assumed sinister intent when there was none to be found.
“He got mad at everybody like he’s Barry Bonds,” Volquez said. “He’s not Barry Bonds. He’s got three years in the league. We’ve been around longer than he has.”
Madson offered a more charitable dissection of Donaldson, but his sentiment was the same.
“For him to get upset, I don’t think he fully understands the game, or he just let his emotions get the best of him,” Madson said. “He thought that a warning means you can’t throw inside.”
The Blue Jays nabbed three of four from their guests, hammering Kansas City pitching for much of the weekend. On Sunday, the Royals (62-42) could not touch the knuckleball of former National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey for seven scoreless innings. Volquez gave up a two-run homer to first baseman Chris Colabello, Madson gave up an RBI double to Jose Bautista and two runs scored against Kelvin Herrera in the eighth.
But the drama resulted from Kansas City’s sudden determination to pitch inside and Toronto’s frustration with this tactic. On the surface, the evidence against Kansas City looks damning. Volquez and Madson each hit a batter. Both threw up and in toward Donaldson. Neither was ejected, unlike Sanchez.
Manager Ned Yost commended the actions of umpire Jim Wolf. Wolf declined to penalize the Royals for throwing inside, but acted swiftly when Sanchez hit Escobar with a 97-mph fastball when there were two outs in the eighth.
“I thought Jim Wolf did a tremendous job understanding the game, understanding what’s intentional,” Yost said. “Was it intentional on their part to hit Esky? Absolutely.”
From the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, Donaldson returned fire after Volquez called him a baby. He told reporters he did not want Volquez ejected from the game. He called Volquez “some pretty good hitting.”
The remark stings, even if Volquez (10-6, 3.20 ERA) provided the best start of any Royal this weekend, giving up only two runs across six innings. The trouble stemmed from Kansas City’s inability to mollify the Blue Jays bats during the first three games of this series.
Toronto battered their opponents for 27 innings, even in Saturday’s Royals comeback victory. The Blue Jays’ lineup boasts an enviable collection of right-handed power, batters like Donaldson, Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki and Edwin Encarnacion, all hitters who crowd the inner portion of the plate.
“These guys are as good an offensive team as you’re going to face,” Yost said. “They’ve got tremendous power. But they all dive into the plate, which makes them susceptible, (on) inside pitches, (to) getting hit.
“I mean, if you continue to throw them away, away, away, away, away, you’re going to get hammered. You’re going to get killed. So you have to utilize the inside part of the plate to open up the outside part of the plate.”
On Saturday, Wade Davis gave up his first home run since Aug. 24, 2013. It was on a high, outside fastball to Bautista. Afterward Davis chided himself for not mixing up his location.
“You’ve got to move the ball around on them,” Davis said. “I stayed away for the most part. You’ve got to move it in and out on these guys, and keep them from getting too comfortable, and reaching out and making the outer half middle-in to them.”
Volquez carried this strategy to the mound on Sunday. He implemented it in the first inning. For three days, Donaldson had tormented Kansas City pitching. He homered on Thursday, smashed two doubled and a walk-off single on Friday and added another homer on Saturday.
In his first encounter with Volquez, Donaldson never saw a pitch to hit. Instead Volquez drilled him with a 94-mph fastball near his left shoulder. The pair shared words as Donaldson walked to first base, but Volquez described the conversation as civil.
“You good?” Donaldson asked Volquez, in Volquez’s retelling.
“Yeah,” Volquez said. “You good?”
The civility disappeared in the third inning. After Donaldson was hit, Wolf warned both benches. Volquez and Madson wondered if Donaldson felt this meant inside pitching was now illegal. With two outs, Volquez said he lost the handle on an 0-1 changeup. The pitch veered up and in, snapping Donaldson’s head back. He stumbled toward the mound and glared at Volquez.
“He started looking at me like I was trying to hit him with a fastball,” Volquez said. “I told the first-base coach, ‘Hey, that was a changeup. If I want to hit you, I’ll hit you with a fastball. Why would I throw a changeup to hit you?’”
He added, “If I hit him again, he’s supposed to get mad, right? But if the ball’s close to you, trying to pitch inside to you, and it doesn’t hit you, why do you get mad? Why do you get so pissed off?”
Donaldson doubled down on his anger in the seventh. He stepped to the plate with one out and two runners on base. Madson had just hit Tulowitzki on the wrist with a fastball. The Royals trailed by two runs at the time, and there already was a runner on base when Tulowitzki got clipped.
The Blue Jays had walloped Madson two days earlier. He gave up three runs, never recorded an out and cost his team a lead. He blamed his failures on his inability to throw to both sides of the plate. He vowed not to repeat his mistakes on Sunday.
“They were taking really comfortable at-bats, really big swings,” Madson said. “You’ve got to throw in, off the plate, a little bit.”
So after he hit Tulowitzki, Madson buzzed Donaldson with a 2-2, 96-mph fastball. Donaldson’s head snapped back. This time, he stomped around the mound, barking at Wolf. He pointed at his head and shouted, “That’s twice, man.”
Gibbons eventually left his dugout to holler at Wolf. He soon was ejected. Jose Bautista tried to calm Donaldson down.
The Royals were unimpressed by Donaldson’s anger. Madson called his strategy, “Pitching 101.” He learned it in the minor leagues, he said.
“If you have guys that are comfortable there and leaning in on you, you’ve got to throw off the plate,” Madson said. “That doesn’t mean hit anybody. You don’t need to hit anybody. But you need to throw in, be aggressive, to get them to back off.”
He added, “If I’m going to hit someone intentionally, I’m doing it on the first pitch. And I’m going to hit you.”
The benches emptied in the top of the eighth, shortly after Sanchez plunked Escobar with a 97-mph fastball. Wolf ejected Sanchez from the game. The Kansas City dugout emptied, and the Blue Jays did the same.
The two teams met by the pitcher’s mound. There were no fisticuffs, but the anger was obvious. Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum and first-base coach Rusty Kuntz had to restrain Volquez.
“We were trying to pitch inside, and they started crying,” Volquez said.
When the dust settled, hitting Escobar proved to be a mistake. Into the game came Toronto closer Roberto Osuna. He gave up a two-run home run to Ben Zobrist, his third in the past two games. But Herrera stumbled in the bottom of the frame, and Osuna closed the show.
It was an entertaining end into a series filled with drama. The Blue Jays acquired both Tulowitzki and ace David Price before the trade deadline. They reside only two games over .500, but their talent is obvious. A rematch with the Royals is something worth dreaming about.
Until then, the Royals will head to Detroit for a three-game series starting on Tuesday. Perhaps by then, their disdain for Donaldson will have faded.
“He hit a lot of homers in the first couple games, and he pimped, and did everything he does,” Volquez said. “If somebody hits you, you’ve got to take it, because you’re pimping everything you do.”