February 2, 2023

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Heasley learns key lesson as familiar issues sink opener

4 min read

CLEVELAND — After climbing back to tie Monday night’s game in the top of the eighth inning to finally gain some offensive momentum, the Royals had the wind kicked out of them moments later when the Guardians mounted a four-run bottom of the frame to seal Kansas City’s 7-3 loss at Progressive Field.

The Royals are now 16-31 to start the season, with the worst record in the American League. Here are three takeaways from a loss that was influenced by similar trends seen throughout 2022:

Heasley’s learning moment
It’s only two months into the season, but the Royals are building toward the future. That includes having their young starters learn and develop against Major League competition. Jonathan Heasley delivered his first career quality start Monday, allowing three runs on six hits and three walks in six innings, with three strikeouts. There was also a major learning opportunity for him in the first and fifth innings against José Ramírez, Cleveland’s most dangerous hitter.

Heasley had walked Myles Straw two batters before in both innings to put a runner on base for Ramírez, who has more RBIs (51) than games played (44). In the first, Ramírez roped a single to score Straw. In the fifth, Heasley wanted a fastball up and in, but he left it too much over the plate. Ramírez turned on it for a go-ahead two-run blast.

Heasley was honest after the game, saying he should have been OK with walking Ramírez and pitched around him.

“It’s just a situation where you’ve got to look at the moment, look who’s at the plate, realize who that is,” Heasley said. “In that situation, it’s probably going to be smarter to put the guy on.”

Heasley did get to a full count, but then he tried to be too aggressive in the zone instead of seeing if Ramírez would chase a quality pitch outside the zone. Ramírez made him pay.

“How I’ve been walking guys pretty frequently, I feel like the last thing I want to do is be like, ‘Oh, let’s walk a guy,’” Heasley said. “At the time, obviously, it’s the smartest decision. … Just a learning situation for sure. As a young guy where you just got to live and learn, unfortunately you just have to learn the hard way.”

Big hits prove elusive
While the Royals’ offense is heating up, the lineup has struggled to a .220 average this season with runners in scoring position, the third worst in the AL.

After Nicky Lopez led off the eighth with a single and doubles from Whit Merrifield and Andrew Benintendi tied the game at 3-3, the Royals were primed for a big inning — but they fell flat.

Perez was jammed on a sinker inside, and he grounded into a double play with two on and no outs. Then, with the bases loaded and two down, Carlos Santana worked a 2-2 count before popping a sinker up softly to second base. The Royals are paying Perez and Santana to be their most dangerous hitters in the lineup, but Perez is hitting .196 and Santana is hitting .150 this season — both went 0-for-4 on Monday.

For the Royals to see their offense click, those two must produce if they’re going to be in the lineup every day, something manager Mike Matheny has committed to in the early part of 2022.

“Santana and I need to do better at the plate and produce for the team,” Perez said. “I’m trying to do too much. … I’m aggressive, a little too much right now. I need to take what they give me. Try to be a little more smart, not try to guess.”

Bullpen lets close game turn into loss
Collin Snider has been clutch for the Royals in high-leverage situations out of the bullpen this season, but he’s run into trouble recently. The rookie reliever has a 1.04 ERA when entering in the middle of an inning, compared to an 11.17 ERA when he enters to start the frame.

That’s a stark difference, but the Royals turned to him in the eighth with the game tied. Snider allowed a one-out walk and a single before leaving a sinker over the middle of the plate to Andrés Giménez, who turned on it for the go-ahead three-run homer.

“I know there’s a difference. I’m not really sure what’s going on,” Snider said. “Coming into the game with guys on base or in the middle innings, there’s a little less time — you get your arm going, get into the game and go from there. But regardless, I just have to be better. Simply.”

The Royals’ bullpen is thin right now, taxed heavily during a long stretch of games and losing a few key relievers to the injured list. Their 4.85 bullpen ERA is the second worst in the Majors. Heasley’s was the first quality start of Kansas City’s road trip, but the bullpen couldn’t lock it down.

“He’s been really good,” Matheny said of Snider. “We’re able to use him in those situations. He just got into a situation with a walk. He got into a count where he’s been very aggressive in the zone, and that one ended up putting us in a bind with a man on base.”

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