Junis gets the ball as Royals chase elusive .500 mark

Jake Junis is coming off a loss Saturday at Anaheim, allowing five runs on eight hits with no walks and eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals began the season as viable playoff contenders, but are struggling to reach .500.

They will meet in a three-game weekend series at Kauffman Stadium beginning Friday.

The Royals bring in a 35-36 record. Their season high-water mark is 7-7. That was the calm before the storm as they finished April with a nine-game losing streak.

The Blue Jays had a chance to reach .500 on Thursday, but lost 11-4 to the Texas Rangers to drop to 35-37. They are 11-13 in series openers.

Toronto manager John Gibbons moved slugger Jose Bautista to the top of the order Wednesday and he walked to lead off the game and trigger a six-run first inning.

“We’ll see how it works,” Gibbons told the Blue Jays website. “We put Bautista there last year and it kind of sparked us a little bit. Try something different. Change things up, maybe it’ll do something.”

The Blue Jays went 25-15 with Bautista batting leadoff in 2016.

After a 9-17 April, the Royals went 13-13 in May and are 13-6 in June. They have not lost a series this month and have won nine of their last 11.

“We’ve been playing really well, having great at-bats later in the games, kind of picking up like we as starters, if we keep it tight,” Royals right-hander Ian Kennedy said.

He kept it close Wednesday and Salvador Perez hit a grand slam in the eighth as the Royals rallied to defeat Boston 6-4. Relievers Mike Minor, Joakim Soria and Kelvin Herrera allowed two hits and no runs over the final 4 1/3 innings after Kennedy was pulled.

“Salvy and all the hitters picked me up later in the game,” Kennedy said. “Our relievers are pitching great again. Mike threw great again. He’s been pitching great all season. Kelvin and Soria come in and do their job.”

The Royals will start rookie right-hander Jakob Junis (2-1, 5.56 ERA) on Friday. This will be his fifth start and seventh appearance. He has never faced the Blue Jays.

Junis is coming off a loss Saturday at Anaheim, allowing five runs on eight hits with no walks and eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings. He yielded home runs to Albert Pujols and Cameron Maybin on Saturday and has surrendered six homers in 16 innings in his last three starts.

The Blue Jays will counter with left-hander J.A. Happ, a 20-game winner last season. Happ, however, is 2-4 with a 4.26 ERA this season and was shut down for six weeks with an elbow injury before returning May 30. He is 2-0 in his past three starts after beginning the season 0-4.

Happ is coming off a solid start Sunday against the Chicago White Sox, allowing three runs on eight hits with no walks and nine strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings.

Happ is 2-2 with a 5.96 ERA in four starts against the Royals. He has not faced them since 2014, when he permitted six runs on nine hits in 7 2/3 innings, including home runs to Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon, in a loss.

Brandon Moss is 7-for-13, Gordon 5-for-11 and Cain is 4-for-6 with six RBIs.

Josh Donaldson and Steve Pearce are question marks for the series. Donaldson was a late scratch Thursday with soreness in his left knee. Donaldson was out for six weeks earlier this season with a right calf strain before returning May 26.

Left-fielder Pearce bruised his right knee Wednesday crashing into the wall while trying to make a catch. X-rays were negative, but he did not play Thursday.