The optimism surrounding the Royals turned feverish July 26, the day before they departed for a 10-game, 11-day road trip. That afternoon at Kauffman Stadium, the team acquired Cincinnati ace Johnny Cueto, took a series victory over Houston and witnessed a thrilling resurgence from Yordano Ventura.
The events of the next two weeks would dim the sun around this club, even if their route to October appears unimpeded. The team dropped an 8-6 decision to Detroit on Thursday, losing for the sixth time in 10 tries on this trip, and providing a reminder of the pitfalls inherent in the last two months of the regular season.
After winning a series in Cleveland, the Royals were bludgeoned by the Blue Jays for three losses in a four-game series. Facing the Tigers, who have already begun to tear down their roster in the name of rebuilding, Kansas City lost two of three. The last ended on a walk-off, two-run shot by second baseman Ian Kinsler off reliever Ryan Madson.
“Hopefully it’s capping off a bad couple weeks for me,” said Madson, who has given up nine runs in his last nine innings. “I’m just ready to move on.”
That sentiment applies to his teammates as well. The Royals, 63-44, had previously erased a three-run deficit in the seventh. After Drew Butera hit his first home run since Aug. 4, 2014, Kendrys Morales tied the game with a two-run double. But the team left the bases loaded in the ninth when Mike Moustakas hit an infield pop-up.
“It’s always disappointing when you lose a series,” manager Ned Yost said. “What’s done is done.”
But the most critical aspect of the afternoon involved another lackluster performance from Ventura. His puzzling second season reached its fifth month this week, and the problems from April remain the same in August. Ventura continues to be plagued by an unsightly blend of random, emotional outbursts and listless, inconsistent pitching.
The emotion burst to the surface Sunday evening when Ventura lobbed keyboard bombs at Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista on Twitter. Ventura subsequently apologized, even if his behavior still caused heads inside the Royals’ clubhouse to shake.
A more unfortunate scenario unfolded during Thursday’s game.
Ventura surrendered six runs in five innings. Five runs resulted from two home runs by Victor Martinez. He blasted a three-run shot in the third and a two-run shot in the fifth. On both occasions the homers occurred after the Royals failed to turn what would have been inning-ending double plays on Kinsler.
“The first one was a tough one,” Yost said. “The second one, we should turn that double play. It ended up costing us two runs.”
The extra outs make the job harder, but they do not alter the central nature of Ventura’s mission: A pitcher must learn to survive the occasional misstep by his defenders. Ventura has wobbled so often in the face of adversity this season, unable to recapture the form that convinced Kansas City to hand him a $23 million contract this winter.
He has given up four runs or more in nine of his 17 starts this season. Only five of his outings meet the low-hanging qualifications for a quality start, with six innings pitched and three runs allowed. He has not pitched in the eighth inning once this season. His ERA is 5.29.
“It’s been very difficult,” said Jeremy Guthrie, who translated for Ventura. “This is one of the first years where he’s really gone through a struggle, and has not been able to get the hitters out as consistently as he’s used to. For him, it’s been tough.”
The Royals missed a chance to capitalize on a depleted Detroit club. On Tuesday the team fired longtime general manager Dave Dombrowski as it began to rebuild its roster.
Less than two hours before the first pitch on Thursday, the Royals received an unlikely visitor. Anibal Sanchez, that day’s pitcher for Detroit, stood in the clubhouse entranceway. He was chatting with fellow Venezuelans Alcides Escobar, Omar Infante and Salvador Perez.
Exiting the food room, Edinson Volquez caught sight of Sanchez. He called out, in Spanish, to ask whether Sanchez knew he was pitching that day. Sanchez nodded and smiled. Jarrod Dyson grabbed a clubhouse attendant and asked Sanchez whether he was looking for a new uniform.
“Papi, you need a large?” Dyson said.
Sanchez chuckled and walked back toward his clubhouse.
The Royals did spark a rally in the second. After singles by Eric Hosmer and Morales, Sanchez walked Moustakas, loading the bases. A walk by Alex Rios drove in a run, and a single up the middle by Infante drove in two more. There were no outs, and the rout appeared to be on.
But Kansas City could not drive Rios home from third. Playing in place of Perez, Butera popped up to first base. Escobar hit a rope at left fielder Tyler Collins. The liner drew Rios off the bag, and he could not tag up in time. Ben Zobrist grounded out and ended the inning.
Despite the inefficiency, the Royals handed Ventura a three-run lead. He bungled it away in the third. He walked the first two batters he faced, No. 8 hitter Alex Avila and No. 9 hitter Andrew Romine. With the bases loaded two batters later, Kinsler hit a grounder to Escobar.
Escobar fed Infante, who could not muster enough velocity to throw out Kinsler. Up came Martinez. He turned on a 2-2, 97-mph fastball and volleyed it to right field. Rios drifted backward until his body ran into the wall. The baseball disappeared behind him.
Ventura suffered through a similar result two innings later. When Hosmer could not handle a bouncing throw from Infante, Kinsler reached first base with two outs. This time, Ventura threw a 3-1 change-up with little movement to Martinez. The two-run shot landed several rows up in the right-field seats.
“He says he feels totally fine physically,” Guthrie said. “It’s frustrating mentally to go through this struggle of what’s happening this year.”