BOSTON —During the final six weeks of this charmed season, the Royals roster represents a mostly completed puzzle, with the major pieces locked into place but a few peripheral situations in need of solutions.
The largest looming question facing this team: After Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, who starts for this team in the playoffs? Both Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura appear to be the most likely candidates. But each remains a source of worry, and Duffy stumbled through a five-inning, four-run outing in a 4-1 loss to the Red Sox on Thursday.
“Quite honestly, I thought this was one of my worst starts of the year,” Duffy said. “Not at all pleased with it.”
Weary after two late nights in Cincinnati, the Royals appeared unable to shake the fatigue Thursday. They have three more nights to atone against the bottom-dwelling Red Sox this weekend at Fenway Park.
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The Royals fell for only the third time in the last 13 games. The lone run resulted from a solo home run by Mike Moustakas, who ripped a low-flying laser down the right-field line in the fifth.
Otherwise Red Sox southpaw Wade Miley trafficked in quick outs and silences. When the Royals did make hard contact, the baseball often found its way into the gloves of their hosts.
Duffy (6-6, 4.18 ERA) could not produce similar results. He gave up seven hits and lacked the ability to finish at-bats. A struggle with the strike zone cost him in the first inning, and a hanging slider did the same in the third. He threw 78 pitches in the first three innings alone.
“He made a lot of mistakes up in the zone early,” manager Ned Yost said.
The bedraggled Royals descended on Fenway Park. Rain delayed Wednesday’s game for more than 90 minutes, and the game itself lasted three hours and 38 minutes. The team did not arrive to their hotel in Boston until around 6 a.m. on Thursday morning. Duffy did not fly ahead of the team.
“We weren’t anticipating it being a 95-minute rain delay and (a game called by) an umpire who looked at 359 pitches,” Yost said.
Kansas City sought an extended outing from Duffy. Yost deployed seven relievers in Tuesday’s 13-inning victory over Cincinnati. Jeremy Guthrie could not finish the fifth inning on Wednesday.
So Yost entered Thursday will only four relievers he felt comfortable using: Closer Greg Holland, lefty Franklin Morales and long reliever Kris Medlen and Chris Young. And either Medlen or Young could start in Guthrie’s place on Monday, if the Royals remove him from their rotation.
Medlen ended up giving up three hits in three scoreless innings. The Royals could still use him on Monday, as he only threw 48 pitches.
“I didn’t really have much of a ’pen,” Yost said. “So I wanted to try to use the least amount of pitchers that I could use.”
Duffy did not exactly exemplify efficiency in the first inning. He gave up back-to-back singles to leadoff hitter Mookie Betts and third baseman Pablo Sandoval. After Duffy loaded the bases by walking designated hitter David Ortiz, his issues with the strike zone became apparent.
Duffy needed an out to exit the frame, and standing in his way was rookie infielder Travis Shaw. Duffy overthrew a trio of fastballs. All were balls. At 3-1, he pumped a fastball that looked like a belt-high strike. Umpire David Rackley disagreed, awarded Shaw a walk and ushered home Boston’s first run.
“I had a hard time finding zone early, where his comfort zone was,” Duffy said. “But he had a consistent zone all night. It was middle to down. I thought I threw a couple pitches at the top of the zone that were strikes. You go back and look at them — they were borderline. So he was consistent with that.”
The call disgusted Duffy. He appeared incredulous. When Salvador Perez threw the baseball back to Duffy, he caught it with his bare left hand. But the offending pitches, the ones that created the predicament, were the first three misplaced fastballs.
A third-inning rally began with another mistake by Duffy. It was not egregious, but it still cost his club. He hesitated, ever so slightly, to cover first on a grounder by speedy shortstop Xander Bogaerts toward first base. Eric Hosmer fed the throw to Duffy, but Bogaerts slid into the bag ahead of the out.
Three batters later, Shaw came up again. He roped a high fastball off the Green Monster in left field to place runners at the corners. Duffy settled in to face catcher Ryan Hanigan.
Two quick strikes put Duffy in control. But his slider looked harmless as it floated into the zone. Hanigan punched it up the middle for a two-run single.
“You want to bounce that, 0-2,” Duffy said. “Not just lob it in there. I flew open and didn’t get down through it. It just wasn’t very well-located. But not a lot of things that I threw today were well-located.”
The Red Sox would not require any more offense. The bats of the Royals looked as heavy as anvils and their legs looked like they were filled with lead. But outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. tacked on an additional tally when he tripled into right and plated Hanigan.
“I’ll erase this and learn from it,” Duffy said. “I’m not going to beat myself up over it. But in the moment right now, I’m not too pleased with it. I didn’t do my job today. I didn’t set my team up to win. This one’s on me.”
Gordon’s rehab — Alex Gordon will begin a rehabilitation assignment with Triple-A Omaha on Sunday.
He expects he will need at least a week of games before the Royals activate him, but Gordon is optimistic about his return after sitting out since July 8 because of a severely strained groin muscle.
“I’m tired of watching games from the bench and not being able to participate,” Gordon said before Thursday’s series opener against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. “But slowly I’ve been able to do more and more stuff. We feel like Sunday’s a good time to get things rolling.”
Gordon expects to alternate between designated hitter and left field during his first few days with the Storm Chasers. He is scheduled to begin playing only five innings at a time in the field before graduating to longer assignments.
Gordon hopes he can come back before the rosters expand on Sept. 1.
“It all depends on, because I haven’t played in a game — it’s my feedback, it’s how I feel,” Gordon said.
Gordon has not felt any discomfort while swinging. But he does need to test how his body responds in the field. He has been able to sprint, but he said he has limited himself to moving at 90 percent speed.
“It’s almost mentally just doing it and getting it over with,” Gordon said. “And after I do it once, it’ll come naturally.”