KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What was supposed to be a big statement series for the Royals going into the All-Star break has turned out to be more of a concession — the Royals simply are no match for the Detroit Tigers at this moment.
The Tigers continued their domination of the Royals in 2014, winning for the ninth time in 12 tries with a 5-1 triumph Saturday night. Worse yet, perhaps, the Tigers have won all six games at Kauffman Stadium by a combined score of 49-14 (that is not a typo, friends).
The Royals also fell 7 1/2 games behind the division-leading Tigers and are just one game over .500 limping into the break.
"We’re underachieving," manager Ned Yost admitted after the game. "But we’re still seven games better than we were a year ago at this time."
This much is clear: Regardless of what happens in today’s series’ finale, the Royals will need a second-half burst equal to the one they had last year if they are going to contend for a playoff spot.
"We know we’re a second-half team," Yost insisted.
Billy Butler, too, didn’t see the Tigers series so far as deflating.
"Sure, we’d like to be gaining games on them," Butler said. "And sure, our number one goal is winning the division. But we’re still in it. I don’t know how far back we are in the wild card, but we’re in it."
While his teammates might not have been up for the fight with the Tigers, Royals ace James Shields sure was. He gave up just two runs — one of those was soft when his defense betrayed him — and threw a season-high 121 pitches through seven innings.
Shields gave up seven hits, walked none and struck out eight in a performance worthy of a win — if the Royals’ offense wasn’t back in a ridiculous funk.
"We were feeling pretty good about ourselves just a couple of games ago, so we’re fine," Shields said. "When we come back from the break, we just have to work on winning the series each time."
— Salvy in the field, on the bases. Sal Perez certainly tried to do his part. In the first inning, Perez gunned down Austin Jackson trying to steal second. That helped keep the Tigers off the scoreboard in the first inning for the first time in the series (Perez also threw out a runner in the ninth). In the fourth, with a Tigers runner on third and two outs, Perez made a great block on a Shields slider in the dirt that prevented a run from scoring, at least temporarily. Alex Avila blooped a single to left just after that to score the run. And Salvy singled with one out in the sixth, hustled to third on a single to right-center and scored on Butler’s sacrifice fly.
— Red-hot Hoz. While most Royals hitters continue to stumble around in a fog at the plate, Eric Hosmer continues his torrid pace. Hoz hit a sharp single in the first to extend his hitting streak to 12 games — that’s a career high. Hoz also roped a shot in the sixth — right at Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, unfortunately. Hosmer is the only Royal swinging with any confidence.
— Billy plates a runner. Butler had a good day at the plate as well. Butler singled with a runner on and no one out in the second, then drilled a double down the left-field line to lead off the fifth. Naturally, no one drove him in. So, Butler did come through with runners on first and third in the sixth by delivering a sacrifice fly to medium center to plate the Royals’ only run.
"Right now we’re not getting people in when they’re in scoring position," Butler said. "It’s a common theme right now."
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— Same ol’ story, same ol’ offense. It is getting truly mind-boggling how poor the Royals are at cashing in scoring opportunities. Before Butler’s sacrifice fly, the Royals had scored only one of their previous 20 baserunners.
The second inning, in fact, seemed to provide a quick capsule of the Royals’ offense in the first half. The Royals put runners on first and third with none out, with a chance to finally make a statement to the Tigers in this crucial series. But it all ended in a whimper. Mike Moustakas had a horrible at-bat, striking out on four pitches. Then Alcides Escobar hacked at a 3-1 pitch down low and rolled into an inning-ending double play.
The Royals had another great chance in the fifth after Butler doubled and Moustakas walked. But Esky again failed to deliver. First, he couldn’t get a sacrifice bunt down, then he rolled into a fielder’s choice. Jarrod Dyson was next with runners on first and third and one out, but he also failed, popping out to short left. After a walk loaded the bases, Lorenzo Cain struck out.
"I could give you five or six reasons why we’re not hitting with runners in scoring position," Yost said. "But this is the big leagues. The bottom line is you either get the job done or you don’t. And we’re not."
— Bad night for Moose. Moustakas also had a forgettable night in the field. He booted a ball in the ninth for an error. But his biggest misplay didn’t come with an E-5 attached. With one out in the Tigers’ fourth Torii Hunter laced a drive over Dyson’s head in center. Dyson retrieved it and fired a strike to Esky, the relay man. Esky fired a dart to Moose at third as Hunter tried for the triple. The throw was on target and beat Hunter easily, but Moose backed off from Hunter and made a sheepish, late tag. One out later, Avila dumped a soft single toward left fielder Nori Aoki, who took a horrible angle toward the ball (in other words, Alex Gordon makes a routine catch on the play).
— Crow has nothing. If there was any reason for the crowd of 33,849 to hang around late in the game, right-hander Aaron Crow took care of that in the ninth. Crow, with the Royals still in it at 2-1, gave up three runs, including two bombs — a homer to left-center by J.D. Martinez, and a towering blast into the fountains in right by Avila. The Royals now have lost four of the last five games they have played when they finally get a big crowd of 30,000 or more.