KANSAS CITY -- Cole Ragans figured out quickly Saturday night that he was going to have to battle without his best command while adjusting his plan against the Cardinals, who were aggressive with the Royals starter’s fastball and curveball.
Ragans walked four and allowed four runs in five innings as the Royals fell 5-4 to the Cardinals at Kauffman Stadium, splitting the I-70 Series before Sunday’s day off -- the first known originally scheduled Sunday off in Royals history.
First, though, the Royals and Cardinals gave the 37,016 in attendance a competitive game. Kansas City battled back late and had the tying run on second before Kyle Isbel grounded into a game-ending double play.
Ragans was handed his first loss as a Royal. It was the first time in four starts with Kansas City that Ragans had struggled more with command, and he saw his pitch count rise to 93 by the end of the fifth inning.
“He was battling out there to keep us in the game,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “Walked a couple more than he would have ideally liked, but his stuff was really good. I don’t think his stuff was down at all. The misses didn’t look bad, either, they were just all around the zone, essentially.”
In the second inning, Ragans threw Tommy Edman a fastball at the top of the zone, which is where Ragans wanted to go with the pitch, and Edman crushed it over the wall in left-center field for a two-run home run -- Edman’s first of two homers on Saturday.
Ragans and catcher Freddy Fermin adjusted to throwing more changeups (28 total) than four-seam fastballs (24) after seeing the Cardinals’ approach to the pitch, and they relied less on Ragans’ curveball as the outing went on because the Cardinals were barreling it.
But Ragans also struggled to stay in the strike zone, and two leadoff walks came back to haunt him. Andrew Knizner came around to score in the third on Nolan Arenado’s double, and Lars Nootbaar got down 1-2 against Ragans to lead off the fifth before Ragans eventually walked him.
Nootbaar scored on Willson Contreras’ single three batters later.
“I made my fair share of mistakes, leaving it over the plate and falling behind guys and stuff,” Ragans said. “ ... Trying to do too much with the slider, just kind of pulling it, especially to lefties. Just trying to do too much with it. The fastball command wasn’t there. At points, I tried to do too much, make too good of a pitch instead of just trusting it.”
While Ragans still got swing-and-miss -- the Cardinals whiffed on 35% of the swings they took against him -- and flashed his big stuff, just 35% of his pitches were in the strike zone. It certainly won’t be the last time he struggles with command, but what he did show was the propensity to battle through it and still get through five innings.
He was helped along by stellar infield defense, which turned two double plays for Ragans, another in the sixth and nearly one more in the seventh when Contreras narrowly beat out the throw from shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.
“Double plays are killer for offenses,” third baseman Matt Duffy said. “We’ve been there. Guys on the bases left and right, they feel so close to breaking through. We turn it, it’s huge for us, huge for [Ragans] to grind through five with the obvious command struggles he had tonight. He gave us a chance to stay in the game.”
Nelson Velázquez provided the only offense against Cardinals starter Steven Matz with a two-run homer in the third inning. Velázquez saw seven pitches from Matz in the at-bat, fouling off three offspeed pitches before hammering an inside sinker 441 feet to the fountains in left-center field.
“This season, I’ve been hitting pretty good inside fastballs and breaking balls, no matter what pitch it is,” Velázquez said. “Staying with my plan. Anywhere in the zone, I can hit it.”
It was Velázquez’s second homer in as many days, and the 24-year-old outfielder now has two home runs in eight at-bats as a Royal.
“He’s got a compact swing,” Quatraro said. “We knew he had power. His swing looks pretty low maintenance. He was on a lot of pitches tonight. The home run at-bat, he fouled off a bunch of offspeed and was still able to get to a fastball in, so he’s been impressive.”