Scott Downs loped into the outfield grass, and Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., understood his night was over. He turned his back to the diamond, waiting for a pinch hitter to replace him. The impending maneuver appeared obvious to so many inside Fenway Park, except, perhaps, for the man behind the controls inside the Royals dugout.
Into the sixth inning of an eventual 5-4 Royals loss stepped Jonny Gomes, and with one simple stroke, Boston manager John Farrell had out-foxed his counterpart, Ned Yost. Downs is 39. The White Sox released him earlier this month. His sole value is an ability to baffle left-handed hitters -- which is precisely what Gomes is not.
Asked to procure one out to protect a one-run lead, Downs held the line for five pitches. His sixth was blasted over the wall in center field, and the Royals never recovered. They frittered away a three-run lead in that deciding frame, and face-planted to start the season's second half.
The sixth inning represented a systematic failure for the Royals (48-47). Their ace, James Shields, yielded a two-run homer to a strikeout-prone rookie. Their two best outfield defenders, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain, failed to flag down catchable balls. At last some blame belongs with Downs, foolish enough to challenge Gomes with an 89-mph fastball at the thighs.
The decision to insert Downs into this scenario can be considered curious at best, mind-boggling at worst. Shields pushed his pitch count to 112, and had served up a home run to Xander Bogaerts three at-bats earlier. Just beginning to warm up next to Downs was heat-seeking reliever Kelvin Herrera.
But Herrera throws with his right arm. Bradley bats from the left side. Farrell cannot even be credited with setting a trap. He merely executed a basic maneuver, and reaped the benefits.
After stumbling into the All-Star break, the Royals continued to struggle on Friday. Shields allowed four runs in 5 2/3 innings. Despite a three-hit night from Eric Hosmer, the offense failed to properly punish Boston starter Clay Buchholz despite 10 hits. The defense lacked its usual crispness: Gordon dropped a ball when diving to start the sixth, and Cain could not catch up to a ball in the gap two batters later.
The misplay by Cain, which granted Stephen Drew a double, set up the critical scenario with Downs. The decision to remove Shields and crack open the bullpen fell to Yost.
Yost spent the four-day respite on his farm in rural Georgia. He spooned bowls of homemade ice cream with his good friend, comedian Jeff Foxworthy, as they watched the All Star Game. He rode his tractor for hours. As chigger bugs attacked his legs, leaving them pocked with bites, he considered how his club might combat the second half of this season.
"You're thinking all the time," Yost said. "But thinking and doing are two different things. I mean, you're thinking about 'How can we hit better?' We've got to hit better. 'What moves can we make?' We can't make no moves. 'How do we get Billy (Butler) going?' Billy's got to get going."
"A lot of stuff," he concluded, "you've just got to go do it."
The quest to do just that began on an idyllic, 68-degree night at Fenway Park. The opening was sweet for the Royals, who played pepper with Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz and the Green Monster to grab a first-inning lead. Omar Infante thunked a double off a ladder hanging down the precipice, and Hosmer smashed an RBI single high off the wall.
An inning later, an error by shortstop Alcides Escobar opened a door for the defending world champions. Escobar's wayward throw yanked Hosmer off the bag to start the second. With two outs, outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr., threaded a single past Mike Moustakas' dive.
In the fourth, the Royals reclaimed the lead, but squandered a chance to batter Buchholz. The frame featured a quartet of hits, a pair of unproductive groundballs and one mistake by a ball girl down the first-base line.
The mistake occurred after Infante raked a leadoff single. Hosmer smoked a grounder past first baseman Mike Napoli and just inside the bag. The ball girl stepped out to scoop it, anyway. From his spot in the dugout, Yost looked perplexed. The umpires placed Infante at third and Hosmer at second.
Yost protested the ruling, positing that Infante could have scored if the ball caromed off the wall. His hitters rendered the point moot soon after: Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon each ripped RBI singles to plate the two runs. With runners at the corners and none out, though, both Billy Butler and Moustakas failed to advance runners with groundouts.
The at-bats haunted the Royals as the game dragged on. Hosmer added an RBI single in the fifth, but from there, the bats quieted. With one out in the eighth, Gordon found himself at third base. He represented the tying run.
There he remained. Moustakas chopped a 2-0 curveball into the waiting glove of Dustin Pedroia, and Escobar managed another measly groundout.
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