KANSAS CITY — Four times on Saturday night, the Royals had at least one runner in scoring position and an opportunity to do damage against the Yankees, break out on offense and end April with some momentum.
Four times, the result was the same: No runs scored.
Gerrit Cole and the Yankees blanked the Royals, 3-0, on Saturday at Kauffman Stadium, handing Kansas City its seventh loss in the past nine games and putting it on the verge of a series sweep with Sunday’s matinee on deck.
The game that ended the first month of the regular season was a microcosm for what April showed: A Royals offense struggling to find its footing, one that creates scoring chances but can’t seem to capitalize when it matters most.
Kansas City left 11 men on base Saturday, bringing its total stranded over the past seven games to 64. That’s 9.1 per game. The Royals have scored 59 runs so far this season, which ranks last in baseball. Their .209 average ranks 28th, as does their .594 OPS and 11 home runs.
“Yeah, we’re a little frustrated right now, but it’s not carrying over,” said second baseman Whit Merrifield, who walked twice and singled. “I can tell you that. We’re an optimistic group. We feel good about the guys that we have regardless of how we’ve been playing. It’s up for grabs right now.
“We’re going to hit our stride, hopefully soon, and once we do, hopefully we can take off and build on that and continue to play well the rest of the year. I know we’ve got it in us. I really believe that, I really do. It just hasn’t shown yet.”
The zeros across the board hurt more as Royals starter Carlos Hernández fought through command issues to limit a potent Yankees lineup to three runs (two earned), despite throwing 90 pitches in four innings and walking five batters.
Even more so when relievers Joel Payamps (two innings) and Ronald Bolaños (three) combined to toss five scoreless frames in relief, giving the beleaguered bullpen a break after the unit had allowed 21 runs in 30 innings (6.30 ERA) across the previous eight games.
“We needed them to do a little work for us,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “Neither of them have had a lot of work lately, and to be able to get in there and be sharp and give us a chance, you’re talking a couple bloops and an extra-base hit, you’re right back in this ballgame. Both guys threw the ball exceptionally well.”
In the third, Edward Olivares singled, and Cole walked Merrifield and Andrew Benintendi to load the bases with two outs for Salvador Perez. But the catcher grounded into a forceout to end the inning.
In the sixth — Cole’s final inning — Carlos Santana singled and Hunter Dozier doubled to put runners on second and third with one out. Bobby Witt Jr., who had singled against Cole in the fourth to extend his hit streak to nine games, worked a six-pitch at-bat — but Cole reached back for a 98 mph fastball on the black to strike Witt out looking. Cole did the same to Kyle Isbel next, freezing the left-handed hitter on a 98 mph heater inside to end the inning.
“Strike three for both of them was black,” Matheny said. “And he reached back for a little extra. Been around a bit. These guys are seeing him for the first time. We want them to be aggressive, but we don’t want them going up there just mad swinging. Get something to do damage with. They had the right approach, and then the good pitch got them at the end.”
The Royals feel the offensive pressure to break out, especially with a number of hitters underperforming.
“We’re struggling as a group,” Merrifield said. “When that happens, and a situation comes up where you can help the team, you want it so bad, it almost takes you out of your whole game plan. And that’s hard to tone back and step back and focus on what makes you successful.
“We’re not scoring runs, everyone wants to take it into their own hands and be the one to break through for us. When you don’t try is when it seems to happen. Easier said than done, trust me. Especially when we’re going like we are. We’ll get it right. Hopefully sooner than later.”