KANSAS CITY -- August temperatures have been scorching in Kansas City this month, but Cole Ragans might have been hotter.
The Royals' starter wrapped up the month with another gem against the Pirates on Tuesday night, throwing seven shutout innings to lower his ERA to 1.72 in six starts in August. With nine strikeouts Tuesday, Ragans finished August with 53 punchouts -- trailing only Dennis Leonard’s 55 in June 1977 for most strikeouts in a month by a Royals pitcher.
Ragans threw 36 2/3 innings this month and allowed just seven earned runs with nine walks. He’s only made seven starts for the Royals since they acquired him from the Rangers for Aroldis Chapman -- but Ragans has been nothing but impressive in Kansas City so far.
“He can get swing-and-miss in the zone, and he can get chase,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “That’s an elite-level pitcher. I don’t know who else in the league has pitched as well as him this month, but he’s got to be up there at the top.”
Ragans was on his way to another dominant win until the bullpen coughed up the lead, and the Pirates poured it on for a 6-3 win over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
Austin Cox allowed a leadoff single but got two outs in the eighth, leading Quatraro to turn to Carlos Hernández for the top of the Pirates’ order. Hernández served up a center-cut slider to Ke’Bryan Hayes for the go-ahead, 424-foot two-run homer.
“Really frustrating, especially the way [Ragans] pitched the whole game,” Hernández said. “It was a gem. The fact that that happens at the end, it’s just not it.”
Pittsburgh scored four in the ninth off righty Steven Cruz, who made his big league debut. The Royals' offense failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities, especially in the fourth inning, when they had the bases loaded with one out and only scored a run.
“It’s terrible,” Quatraro said. “Couldn’t feel worse for those guys in there. We didn’t score enough runs to separate the game, and guys are frustrated by that. We certainly know Carlos is frustrated. And that’s obviously not how we’d like Cruz’s debut to go. But that’s what happened. So we’ve got another game tomorrow.”
It’s obvious that the Royals need to upgrade their bullpen this offseason. And adding to the rotation should be a priority, too. But Ragans has turned into a key piece they want to count on in 2024.
“I think he’s definitely established himself as somebody who’s going to be in our rotation,” general manager J.J. Picollo said Monday. “We still have a month left to play, but based off what we’ve seen -- the power, the ease in which he does it, the ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes -- he’s earned a spot. That’s one less rotation spot we’re going to worry about. Keep the competition going between many of the others, and we’re still going to look to get better. But Cole’s going to be a good piece for us.”
On Tuesday, Ragans dominated the Pirates with his fastball and kept them guessing with his changeup and slider. He needed 47 pitches through his first four innings and didn’t give up a hit until the fifth, but his command wavered in the back half of the game.
Another impressive sign: He worked his way out of three-ball counts and traffic on the bases. When he started missing arm side, Ragans knew his mechanics had gotten out of whack. He quickly made adjustments with his back leg to work out of the trouble.
“Certain mechanics started shifting a little bit on me,” Ragans said. “I had to take a second to be like, ‘All right,’ and make the adjustment pretty quick to get back in the count.”
Getting back in sync with his mechanics to finish the seventh -- which he has never done in the big leagues -- at a career-high 108 pitches caused Ragans to pound his glove as he walked off the mound.
“Really good pitchers, no matter what, they’re getting deep in the game,” Ragans said. “Finishing the seventh is big for me, especially having the guys on base, falling behind. That they’re still trusting me to get out of the inning was really big.”
The Pirates were ready for Ragans to get out of the game.
“That’s really good stuff,” manager Derek Shelton said. “Left-handed fastball at 97 to 99 [mph] with the changeup and the cutter and then the breaking ball, that’s a good young pitcher. You talk about good young starting pitchers in the game, and being able to execute to both sides of the plate, and that’s what we saw tonight.”