The Royals’ bullpen, which has been lights-out to start the season, ran into trouble by the name of José Ramírez on Wednesday afternoon.
Royals relievers entered Wednesday’s game with a 1.86 ERA -- four earned runs in 19 1/3 innings -- through the first four games of the season, holding opponents to a .182 average with 24 strikeouts. The bullpen has been the strength of the club so far, picking up starters when they couldn’t go deep over the past weekend and picking up the offense over the past few days.
But two pitches from Jesse Hahn and Greg Holland gave Ramírez all the leverage he needed to take the lead in the sixth inning and break a tie in the eighth. Neither of Ramírez’s homers were particularly deep, with distances of 355 feet and 367 feet, respectively, according to Statcast. But in right field at Progressive Field, that’s enough to get out and do damage.
“Good hitter,” manager Mike Matheny said of Ramírez. “You’re only going to keep a good hitter down so long. We had a couple of opportunities to get out of that [sixth] inning. You give him too many chances, he’ll make you pay. That’s the kind of guy that can hurt you, especially in a park like this one.”
With one on and two outs in the sixth inning after the Royals couldn’t finish two double-play chances, Ramírez hit a slider from Hahn that landed just foul of the pole in the right-field bleachers. He straightened out his swing on the next pitch and took a sinker over the right-field wall.
In the eighth, Holland issued a four-pitch walk to Ben Gamel, struck out Cesar Hernandez and then left a slider over the plate, and Ramírez deposited it in nearly the same place as the first one.
“You guys know Greg Holland is one of the best closers I ever caught in my life,” catcher Salvador Perez, who homered off Cleveland ace Shane Bieber, said. “He left it up a little bit. Today is over, so we concentrate on the next series.”
Ramírez spoiled Junis’ start, which was only supposed to be a few innings until he turned in as efficient a start as Matheny could ask for. Three days after Junis had been used on back-to-back days out of the bullpen, he threw 58 pitches in five innings -- and of his 15 outs, 10 were in three pitches or less.
While Matheny insisted before the game that this wasn’t a trial run for Junis to be the Royals’ fifth starter when they need one next week, it’s hard to ignore the way Junis pitched in a longer outing Wednesday.
“They were swinging early and often,” Junis said. “Just attacking the strike zone with my cutter, my slider and taking out of the zone when needed was really the name of the game.
“I’ve always been one to attack the strike zone and not have very many walks and really force the issue. I’ve been hurt with that in the past, but luckily now with the cutter, it’s missing barrels and helped me get a lot of quick outs today.”
Junis got two quick outs in the fifth inning but walked first baseman Jake Bauers, prompting Matheny to take a mound visit. Junis thought he was coming out then, but Matheny only wanted to give him and the bullpen some time.
When Matheny told him he had one more hitter, Junis got a shot of adrenaline. He got to an 0-2 count, threw a fastball for a ball and then watched Roberto Pérez foul off another fastball. Junis turned to his cutter -- the pitch he’s worked on all offseason and Spring Training to give him another weapon as a starter -- and got Pérez to strike out swinging on it.
“When I saw [Matheny] coming out, I was kind of upset at myself for walking that guy, and the infield was giving me high fives saying great job,” Junis said. “Mike pulls up and says, ‘Woah, woah, woah, I’m not taking you out.’ I said, ‘Let’s do this. I got this guy.’ That fired me up, and it was even sweeter to get a strikeout to end that fifth inning.
“Unfortunately, definitely would like to see a win in that game. I thought we played a pretty good game overall, but we [have to] pick up the pieces and be ready for Chicago tomorrow.”