KANSAS CITY -- The 97.5 mph ball off the bat of Yu Chang came at Emmanuel Rivera like a laser as he dove to his right to snag it in the seventh inning Sunday afternoon, and for a half-second, it looked the third baseman might have a shot at a triple play.
Rivera grabbed the ball out of his glove, touched it on third base and fired a throw to second baseman Whit Merrifield from his knees. Kris Bubic pumped his fist and pointed at Rivera and Merrifield, happily taking at least two outs with runners on base in a tie game.
The Royals lefty got the third out on the next pitch, setting up Hunter Dozier’s go-ahead RBI in the bottom of the frame in Kansas City’s 4-2 win over Tampa Bay at Kauffman Stadium, taking its first series out of the break.
“I told [Rivera] he’s got to work on his fast-twitch muscles,” shortstop Nicky Lopez said with a grin. “No, it was a great play. Saved the game for us, which was huge. … I liked the tag on the base with the ball. That was a good touch.”
Plays like Rivera’s were huge for Bubic, who cruised through seven strong innings of two-run ball. With trust in his defense, Bubic has now pitched seven innings in consecutive starts for the first time in his career and is starting to display the kind of consistency the Royals have hoped to see out of him in 2022.
“That’s one for him to put in the memory bank,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Obviously the results were great, but Kris’ tempo, aggressiveness; he got into good counts and didn’t try to make perfect pitches.
“That’s the pitcher I know that he can be.”
After he seized a spot in the Opening Day rotation with a strong spring, not much went right for Bubic. He made six appearances (five starts) and walked more batters (11) than he struck out (10). That resulted in a trip to Triple-A Omaha to work out some issues.
Since Bubic rejoined the rotation on June 4, he’s been much better: Across 10 starts (55 innings), he now has a 3.76 ERA. Three of those starts have been quality, and he’s pitched into the sixth inning five times. He’s allowed 23 earned runs in that span (including five home runs), walked 26 batters and struck out 45.
Sunday was Bubic's most efficient outing yet, needing 49 pitches through four innings, 67 through six and 82 total.
“Just stop thinking,” Bubic said when asked what was fueling his recent success. “Having a little bit of an edge back to me helps as well, brings the confidence back up. I think knowing that these guys have my back behind me definitely helps as well. But just pounding the zone with all three pitches, not overthinking what that looks like and going from there, sometimes it surprises you with what you’re able to do.”
Bubic was aggressive in the zone, which didn’t lead to a ton of swing-and-miss action -- he registered just seven whiffs on 38 swings. The Rays were jumping on his pitches but not doing much with them. Yandy Díaz’s 104.7 mph home run to center field in the third inning was Bubic’s biggest mistake; otherwise, he induced weak contact with all three of his pitches.
“The more often our guys are challenging hitters and good things happen on the back side defensively, the more likely they are to continue to do that,” Matheny said.
Bubic’s curveball was the “separator” on Sunday, he said, throwing it 20 times and seeing good results with it. Roman Quinn swung through it twice for strike three, and the Rays averaged just an 83.9 mph exit velocity on the pitch.
“Being able to throw it for a strike, throw it below the zone, throw it with conviction with two strikes,” Bubic said. “I think just throwing it a lot, continuing to get reps with it, that’s what I’m happiest with.”
There have been several times in Bubic’s short career where he’s relied too much on his fastball/changeup combination or thrown non-competitive pitches when he gets ahead in the count. Neither tended to lead to good results.
A mindset change and willingness to rely on his curveball has led to consistency over the past two months.
“I want to go right after them regardless of how it looks,” Bubic said. “Put pressure on the hitters rather than waiting for something bad to happen. Keep your foot on the gas pedal and be aggressive right from the jump.”