July 7, 2022

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Pitching ineffective in 'flashback' Royals loss

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KANSAS CITY — All spring long, Royals manager Mike Matheny emphasized the need for first-pitch strikes, getting ahead in the count and not letting one or two runs balloon on a pitcher like the Royals saw far too many times last season.

The first two games of the regular season showed what happens when that strategy is applied correctly. Sunday’s 17-3 rout by the Guardians at Kauffman Stadium showed what happens when it’s not.

“That was kind of a flashback to the ones we had last year that would spiral out of control,” Matheny said.

Kris Bubic couldn’t get out of the first inning, recording just two outs to mark the shortest start of his career. The lefty allowed two runs and then loaded the bases for right-hander Taylor Clarke, who allowed a grand slam to Oscar Mercado on a full-count slider that backed up into the zone. The Royals’ offense was put in a 6-0 hole before it had the chance to bat.

Matheny partly took the blame for putting Clarke in that spot; although Clarke will be one of the relievers the Royals turn to with runners in scoring position, Matheny said he didn’t communicate to Clarke that it could be as early as the first inning.

“I didn’t give him a big heads-up on him being the guy there,” Matheny said. “You don’t necessarily want to do a lot of talking about needing somebody in the first.”

“I take pride in being able to come in pretty quick and get ready quick,” Clarke added. “That’s our job in the bullpen, pick our teammates up. … I was ready to go in. It just happened a little quick.”

Bubic, who threw well in Spring Training, did not have any control on Sunday, failing to register a whiff in the 29 pitches he threw and getting behind in the count to five of the seven batters he faced in the first inning.

Royals coaches have emphasized aggressiveness in the zone more than anything to start this season, and on Saturday, starter Brad Keller threw a first-pitch strike to 15 of the 19 batters he faced. That kept the defense alert and ready to make plays.

From the start Sunday, Bubic was laboring to find that same mentality. He threw three consecutive balls to leadoff hitter Myles Straw, battled back into a 3-2 count, then threw a fastball out of the zone for a walk.

“It sets the tone for everything, getting ahead in the count,” Bubic said. “You’re able to use every pitch. I didn’t use any sliders today. But really didn’t feel like I had the chance to because I had my back against the wall right away. All self-inflicted, of course. The guys in the first two games of the series were great. It’s a day to forget. We’ll move on to the next.”

The Royals put Jackson Kowar and Brady Singer in the bullpen for days like this, when a starter can’t go deep into a game. Both pitched Sunday, but both fell into a similar trap.

Kowar found the zone but didn’t miss bats; the right-hander allowed seven runs on 11 hits in 3 1/3 innings. The Guardians whiffed just six times on the 30 swings they took against Kowar, and he acknowledged his sequencing might have been off, leading to a lot of swings on good pitches.

“It’s one thing to be throwing strikes, it’s another to be getting guys out,” Kowar said. “…I think all of us are really frustrated with the way things went today. It was one of those things where they just kind of got rolling and it was hard to stop. Seeing the success those guys had being aggressive in the count and throwing first pitch strikes, it’s frustrating we couldn’t replicate that today.”

After Gabe Speier’s 1 2/3 scoreless innings, Singer allowed four runs on six hits in three innings.

As much excitement as there is surrounding the 2022 Royals and the youth that should propel this team forward, Sunday was a reminder that there will still be growing pains.

How the Royals prevent games like Sunday from happening will help determine how far they go this year.

“Made it really hard on myself, made it hard on the team to be in a hole like that early,” Bubic said. “Then it sets the tone for the rest of the game. This early, you have to forget it and have a short memory. Make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

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