Young Royals battle 'growing pains' on tough road trip

August 21st, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Royals’ 7-4 homestand last week was encouraging, not only for team morale, but also for what it revealed about the club's potential future with its core group of players.

But Sunday afternoon’s 3-2 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field sent the Royals back to Kansas City with a series loss and a 1-6 road trip -- a rather abrupt reminder that they still have a long way to go to ensure that the potential shown during the past homestand plays out successfully.

“That’s how crazy baseball is; in a blink of an eye, it can turn,” said infielder Nicky Lopez, who has found his voice as one of the clubhouse leaders despite still being relatively young at 27 years old. “We had a rough road trip. We’ll go back home and try to piece some things together. But [we'll] keep coming to the ballpark every day trying to learn, trying to get better.

“This is our team, so we’re just going to have to go through the growing pains together. We’re going to have to go through the successes of winning and the failures, too.”

The Royals’ offensive production came to a screeching halt this week against the Twins and Rays, scoring 10 runs in seven games and being outhit 71-37. Kansas City has been limited to six hits or fewer in a club-record six straight games, and logged just four hits in each of the past three contests. The Royals totaled 18 hits this series, their fewest for a four-game set since Sept. 16-19, 1985, against Seattle.

“We ran into some pretty good pitching here, no doubt,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Saw some good pitching in Minnesota as well. But those are the guys -- we’ve got to beat them. And we were in a position to do that today.

“I like our guys against anybody when we’re in a good place. But a couple of guys are down in confidence right now, and we just have to fight our way through it. We need a few of them hot at the same time to put those innings together that add up to wins.”

On Sunday, every opportunity they had on the bases was squashed except for in the fifth inning. Kyle Isbel drew a walk against Rays lefty starter Ryan Yarbrough, and Lopez grinded out a 13-pitch at-bat that resulted in a fielder’s choice but no outs due to second baseman Brandon Lowe’s error.

That set up MJ Melendez’s RBI single into right field that deflected off the glove of Harold Ramírez, and then Bobby Witt Jr.’s sacrifice fly that tied the game at 2. Yarbrough exited with one out in the fifth after 82 pitches, but he largely held the Royals off balance, especially with his curveball.

“It's not every day as a left-handed pitcher you get six lefties in the order,” said Yarbrough, who has held left-handed hitters to a .458 OPS this year. “That’s been a big weapon for me, and with that many lefties, it's just something I lean on. And it was really effective, so when you have a pitch working like that, you're just going to continue to throw it.”

Reliever Jose Cuas took over for the bottom of the fifth inning and allowed the go-ahead run to score after starter Zack Greinke's precautionary exit after the fourth. Greinke felt a cramp in his pitching forearm while facing Christian Bethancourt, and he got a visit from Matheny and trainer Kyle Turner. After throwing a few warmup pitches, he was able to finish the frame without issue.

“Just a little cramp-type feeling,” Greinke said. “It felt OK on the next pitches, but probably just precautionary and see how it feels tomorrow.”

Matheny added that Greinke should be able to make his next start, but the Royals will get a closer look at his arm at Kauffman Stadium on Monday.

The Royals’ bullpen kept it a one-run game, thanks in part to two scoreless innings from newly converted reliever Brad Keller, but the offense was held stagnant. Matheny pinch-hit right-hander Brent Rooker for left-handed rookie Nick Pratto against lefty reliever Colin Poche (despite Pratto starting against Yarbrough) with a runner on first in the bottom of the sixth, but Rooker struck out.

So did Michael A. Taylor, who pinch-hit for Isbel in the seventh.

“We’re trying not to put too many guys on the bench too many days in a row,” Matheny said. “... When you get a spot later on in the game, where you know they’re hemmed in to where they have to leave a lefty on the mound and you got an opportunity to take a shot with a right-handed hitter and you like the matchup better, we’ll take our shot.”