How the Royals can rebound after squandering Lugo's start

March 31st, 2024

KANSAS CITY -- The Royals signed this winter to throw strikes and be a stabilizer in the rotation.

The right-hander was as advertised in his Royals debut Saturday against the Twins, tossing six scoreless innings with four strikeouts, in line for the win when he exited the game -- and then was handed a no-decision because of a late-inning bullpen collapse and a continued cold offense in the Royals’ 5-1 loss at Kauffman Stadium.

“He deserved to win,” closer Will Smith, who allowed four runs in the ninth inning, said. “We let that one get away from us today. But if he does that all year, we know we’re going to have a good season.”

The Royals fell to 0-2 to begin the season for the 17th time in franchise history and second consecutive season. They’ve scored two runs through two games, matching the second fewest in franchise history through two games, more only than last year’s team (zero runs).

On Saturday, Kansas City got on the board first, breaking up a pitchers' duel between Lugo and Twins righty Joe Ryan. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Bobby Witt Jr. was on second base for the second time in the game, stretching a routine single to right-center into a double. The Twins went to lefty reliever Steven Okert, who got Vinnie Pasquantino to pop out and then intentionally walked Salvador Perez to get the left-on-left matchup with MJ Melendez.

For the second time in the game, Melendez came up with Witt on second and two outs. He struck out the first time. This time, he poked a single through the left side of the infield to score Witt and give the Royals the lead.

“With him in scoring position two times, you can’t miss that twice,” Melendez said. “... [Lugo] did everything he needed for us to get the win. Obviously, we weren’t able to put up enough runs.”

Kansas City’s offense has sputtered the first two games against the Twins once again after being held scoreless in last year’s opening series. Pasquantino, Perez and Hunter Renfroe are still looking for their first hits of the season.

“We knew coming into this series that both of those starters are really good,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “They’ve got a deep bullpen. Those guys at the back-end have four pitches and throw really hard. We knew they were going to be tough at-bats.”

In the seventh, Royals reliever John Schreiber got out of a self-induced jam when he hit two batters and allowed a single to load the bases, getting a double play to keep the Royals’ lead intact.

James McArthur allowed the game-tying run in the eighth, and the game unraveled for Smith in the ninth when he hit a batter, walked two others (one intentional) and allowed four runs on two hits.

“You want your first outing to go well,” Smith said. “This one didn’t. It is what it is. We can say all the cliches -- it’s a long season, all that stuff. But as a competitor, you want your first one to go well for a new team. And it just didn’t.”

A 7-22 start in ‘23 sunk the Royals’ season -- they let a bad opening series spiral into a bad opening month, and it’s hard to overcome a bad start to the season. The Royals didn’t in ‘23, matching a franchise record with 106 losses, which led to an overhaul of the roster.

The purpose of that overhaul was to bring in new talent, but also a veteran presence. So that one or two losses become just that and not a spiral.

“We have winners here,” Witt Jr. said. “It’s definitely something that you learn from those guys. What do you do after a loss? How do you learn from it? We come together as a team, you learn from things and you move on.

“Learn from these guys that have gone through it -- who have been on teams that have gone through rough starts or rough patches, a bunch of losses. How can you limit it as much as possible? Try to stay [even-keeled]. Continuing to get better each and every day.”

That challenge will remain until the Royals show they can limit the damage. Sunday offers a new chance at doing so.

“Have dinner with each other like those guys are doing over there,” Smith said when asked for his advice on moving past Saturday’s loss. “Talk about it. If anything came up during the game that they want to talk about, have baseball conversations. Go home, get some sleep and get ready to play tomorrow.”