Mike Matheny said all week that he would manage every game of this 60-game sprint like it was the most important game ever.
And Royals fans got a glimpse of that in Matheny’s first game as Kansas City’s skipper Friday night in Cleveland, a 2-0 victory for the Tribe.
In a scoreless game with one out in the fifth inning, Matheny pulled starter Danny Duffy, though Duffy had thrown just 65 pitches and had been stretched out enough to go 75-90.
But with runners on first and third, and with every run crucial considering how Cleveland starter Shane Bieber was dominating the Royals’ offense, Matheny brought in reliever Scott Barlow to face No. 9 hitter Oscar Mercado.
The move almost paid off, as Mercado bounced a potential double-play grounder just out of the reach of shortstop Adalberto Mondesi and into left-center field. Jordan Luplow scored.
“We’re looking at most likely not having Danny once you get to the top of the order,” Matheny said. “There’s a good chance he’s not going to see them for the third time through.
“We got one of our better right-handed relievers hot, and it’s a tough guy to roll up in a double play, but we’ll take our chances there. We got the ground ball from Barlow, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”
Cesar Hernández followed by shooting another grounder just past third baseman Maikel Franco down the left-field line for another RBI hit, giving Cleveland a 2-0 lead.
Actually, Duffy nearly got out of that fifth inning himself. With one out and a runner on first, Duffy got Roberto Pérez to bounce a grounder that with conventional positioning would have been potentially a 6-4-3 double play. But the Royals had Mondesi shifted toward deep short, and the single put runners on first and third, prompting Matheny’s pitching change.
Duffy said after the game that he understood the Royals’ defensive positioning.
“I look back pretty frequently to see where everybody is,” Duffy said, “and I did think it was hit to double-play depth where everyone is. But there’s so much advancement made about where people should be [positioned], you never second-guess what your coaches do. I feel like it will work a lot more than it doesn’t. I will never second-guess [infield coach] Vance Wilson.
“It is what it is, the numbers don’t lie.”
And although Duffy didn't question Matheny’s decision to pull him, he clearly had hoped to go further in the game.
“I always want the ball,” he said. “I’ll just leave it at that.
“People who know me know that I go all out. I built up my pitches, got to 90 [last week]. But at the end of the day, it’s not my call.”
Meanwhile, the Royals had no answer for Bieber, who struck out 14 through six innings.
“When you get that many swings and misses,” Matheny said, “you know you got something working. He was really sharp. He had multiple pitches working.”
Whit Merrifield was one of the few Royals who got good swings against Bieber. Merrifield was hit by a pitch, lined out to right and lined a single to right.
“He had good stuff,” Merrifield said. “That curveball, if I’m not mistaken, is a new pitch for him. For him to mix that curve in, it’s a good one. It will elevate his game.”
Kansas City had one excellent scoring chance in the fifth inning. Nicky Lopez and Merrifield singled, and Merrifield stole second with two outs, but Bieber struck out Mondesi on a 3-2 curve out of the zone.
Right-hander Tyler Zuber, the Royals’ No. 29 prospect per MLB Pipeline, made his MLB debut in the seventh inning and retired Cleveland in order. He then pitched a scoreless eighth.