KC Royals: Where does blame lie for this catastrophe?

Retired KC Royals manager Ned Yost often used the phrase “one of those nights” to downplay his players’ and teams’ worst moments. He protected them that way; rarely did he openly criticize.

But even Yost might have struggled to minimize, at least publicly, the disaster that befell his successor’s club in Baltimore Wednesday night. What happened can’t be dismissed as one of those nights, or even one of those things, that happen in baseball.

No, this was simply an unmitigated disaster, a sudden one-inning catastrophe that destroyed a wonderful pitching performance from a Kansas City hurler who needed one.

The Royals lost 9-8 to the worst team in baseball. But losing to Baltimore, bad enough in and of itself, isn’t the disaster. Instead, the disaster lies in the way it occurred.

And that, unfortunately, requires a painful review of the Orioles’ half of the eighth inning. Thanks to starter Mike Minor, who hadn’t won a game since July or held any opponent scoreless yet this season, the KC Royals were in control, leading 5-0 with just six outs to get to assure themselves of no worse than a split of this four-contest series. Minor gave Kansas City his best effort of the season—he didn’t allow a run or walk anyone before Manager Mike Matheny handed the game to Joel Payamps to start the seventh.

Payamps, superb in eight appearances since the Royals called him up from Omaha in mid-August after acquiring him from Toronto, showed the Orioles why he came into the game with a 2.08 ERA: he struck out the side.

That, however, was the seventh inning, not the eighth when things went so horribly wrong for Kansas City. Payamps returned to the mound, and Matheny replacing Ryan O’Hearn in right field with Hunter Dozier seemed logical—O’Hearn’s 22 career games in right (all this season) fell far short of Dozier’s 89.

Neither decision worked out the way Matheny intended.

Payamps walked leadoff batter Cedric Mullins on a full count.

Ryan Mountcastle advanced Mullins to third with a single.

Austin Hays smacked Payamps’ first pitch for a double to score Mullins with the O’s first run of the night.

Matheny, understandably cautious with runners on second and third with no outs, called in Josh Staumont to kill the threat.

Instead, Staumont walked Pedro Severino to load the bases.

Then Anthony Santander singled to make it 5-2; the bases remained loaded.

Pinch hitter DJ Stewart popped out, setting up a potential inning-ending double play that could, with the bases packed, have started anywhere.

Matheny made another move, summoning Jake Brentz to replace Staumont. Brentz struck out Jahmai Jones, bringing light-hitting former Royal Kelvin Gutierrez to the plate.

Gutierrez singled to score two more runs, and the game was tied. The Orioles had batted around.

Then came the play, one which will long haunt the Royals.

Mullins popped a fly to right-center that Dozier was preparing to haul in easily when Olivares, playing center while Michael A. Taylor DH’d, dashed for the ball from center. Olivares’ sudden arrival on the scene seemed to immediately distract Dozier, who was settling under the ball after having to barely jog for it, and the ball bounced off his glove. Two runs scored, and suddenly the Orioles led 7-5.

The scorer gave Dozier an error.

Mountcastle then homered to left, transforming the KC Royals’ five-run lead into a four-run deficit. Hays grounded out to end the debacle, but the damage Baltimore inflicted was irreparable. Andrew Benintendi’s three-run homer in the ninth wasn’t enough, and the Orioles won for the second night in a row.

Hunter Dozier doesn’t deserve blame for the KC Royals’ devastating loss.

Those tempted to hang this loss on Hunter Dozier shouldn’t. Yes, the ball ticked off his glove on a what should have been a makeable play. And yes, the unwritten rule is that the center fielder is captain of the outfield with almost irrevocable right of way on every play in which he chooses to involve himself. But calling for the ball is the accepted, and expected, practice.

Whether Olivares called for it or not, he shouldn’t have been close to Dozier, and it was proximity to his teammate that made a makeable play unmakeable.

From the beginning, Dozier was closer to Mullins’ fly than Olivares. He wasn’t running (if he was really running at all) as hard as Olivares, meaning the play was far easier for him to make. Olivares looked confused, a condition perhaps stemming from his inexperience in center—Wednesday was only his 12th major league game there.

Captain of the outfield or not, Olivares should have yielded to Dozier. In this instance, the play clearly belonged to the right fielder.

Does that mean, however, that Olivares gets the blame? No, not all of it, especially when he threw none of the 68 pitches Kansas City’s hurlers did in the catastrophe that was the eighth inning. The Orioles didn’t score those runs off Olivares; he had nothing to do with seven of them.

This one hurt.

The KC Royals and Orioles conclude their series, and their games against each other this season, tonight. Carlos Hernandez (5-1, 3.57) faces John Means (5-6, 3.47) in the 6:05 p.m. CDT contest.