Shaky relief corps, tight strike zone doom Royals in 8-2 loss to Blue Jays

Blue Jays 8 Royals 2

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The bullpen door swung open, and out jogged Scott Alexander late Sunday afternoon. A baseball game tied, the Royals on the verge of a three-game sweep, manager Ned Yost called on his sinker-ball specialist to neutralize the Blue Jays’ powerful lineup in the top of the sixth inning.

The tactic seemed mostly sound. In 26 innings this season, Alexander had logged a 1.38 ERA, controlling hitters with a darting sinker that reaches the strike zone then disappears. He is 27 years old and pitching the best season of his life, a performance built on sinker after sinker. On a Sunday at Kauffman Stadium, the combination of sinkers, a tight strike zone and a porous defense turned a sound decision into a disastrous one.

In an 8-2 loss to the Blue Jays, Alexander and the Royals’ bullpen was ravaged for five runs during a messy sixth inning. The sequence included a spate of borderline ball calls from home-plate umpire John Tumpane, a costly error by third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert, a subsequent ejection of reliever Peter Moylan and the end of a rollicking three-game winning streak that began with two stunning comebacks.

The momentum halted on Sunday as the Royals (37-37) entered a day off on Monday before starting a three-game series in Detroit on Tuesday night. The tipping point came in the top of the sixth.

Alexander opened the inning by allowing a single to Toronto’s Darwin Barney and issuing walks to Kevin Pillar and Steve Pearce. His command was not awful. Yet the results were not ideal. Alexander kept hurling sinkers that skirted near the bottom of the strike zone. Tumpane, the home plate ump, kept watching the pitches and calling balls.

With the bases loaded and a right-handed dominant top of the lineup due up next, Yost summoned right-hander Moylan to replace Alexander and face slugger Jose Bautista. Moylan walked Bautista on five pitches, including a 2-1 fastball that was not borderline but rather fully in the strike zone.

In the moments after the 2-1 pitch, Moylan screamed at Tumpane, offering at least one expletive. Catcher Drew Butera stepped in front of Tumpane, trying to de-escalate the situation.

As Bautista trotted to first base with a walk, the Blue Jays led 3-2. The inning would flatline in the next moments when Cuthbert bobbled a grounder at third base and threw wildly to first, allowing another run to score and everybody to be safe.

From there, Toronto’s third baseman Josh Donaldson put his bat on another sinker from Moylan and sent a two-run double to right field. As Yost emerged from the dugout to make yet another pitching change, Moylan hollered at Tumpane, earning an ejection as he walked back to the dugout.

The loss could not ruin the weekend. The Royals won two out of three and clinched their fifth straight series victory. Even after Sunday’s frustration, they have won 11 of 14 and sprinted into contention in the American League Central.

Yet the result could feel like a missed opportunity for more. Seeking their first three-game sweep since May 14, the Royals built a 2-0 lead in the first four innings. Rookie Jorge Bonifacio clubbed his 11th home run in the first inning against Blue Jays starter Francisco Liriano. Eric Hosmer delivered an RBI single in the fourth. Starter Jason Hammel opened the game with four scoreless innings.

But then Bautista knotted the game at 2 with a booming 450-foot homer in the fifth, and Hammel’s pitch count reached 105 as he finished out the inning. In a tie game, the Royals would need four innings from their bullpen. Yost called on Alexander to work the sixth.

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