The KC Royals, a club with a firm hold on last place in the American League Central, opened a three-game road series with Minnesota at Target Field Monday night. And for much of the evening, it seemed like Kansas City might defy the odds posed by their terrible season and beat the first-place Twins.
In fact, things began to feel that way as soon as Maikel Garcia blasted Minnesota starter Joe Ryan's first pitch of the game over the left field wall. The feeling stayed alive as Kansas City, behind the collectively reasonable pitching of Austin Cox, José Cuas and Collin Snider, managed to keep the contest close through seven innings, and surely intensified when Nick Pratto banged a homer of his own off the right field foul pole in the eighth to tie the game at three runs apiece.
But as so often happens with these Royals, they ended up losing, this time 8-4. Their 60th loss and the latest addition to a long line of 2023 disappointment arose primarily from an increasingly familiar source of trouble: Taylor Clarke.
Yes, the same Taylor Clarke whose good pitching appeared, until recently, to have made him one of the most important components of Quatraro's bullpen. Now, though, and especially after what the Twins did to him Monday, Clarke's status may be on the verge of changing for the worse.
KC Royals reliever Taylor Clarke's pitching slump continued Monday night
Clarke, who came to Kansas City as a free agent two Decembers ago and figured prominently in KC's 2023 bullpen plans when spring training began, started Monday night's disastrous eighth inning by allowing a lead-restoring homer to Edouard Julien. He retired Willi Castro but then, in agonizingly quick succession and without securing an intervening out, walked Joey Gallo, was nicked by a Christian Vázquez single, coughed up another single to former Royal Michael A. Taylor, and allowed two more singles to Max Kepler and Carlos Correa.
All that accounted for four runs and a 7-3 Minnesota lead and forced manager Matt Quatraro to pull Clarke in favor of Nick Wittgren, who unfortunately gave up an RBI single to Alex Kirilloff. That run, too, was charged to Clarke.
Counting his five-run, one-third-of-an-inning Monday night debacle, only once has Clarke held an opponent scoreless in his most recent seven games, a dreadful span during which he's been battered for 15 runs and an astonishingly bad 23.82 ERA. He entered the second of those seven contests, a June 19 game against Detroit, with a three-run lead only to blow it, and the game, by allowing two inherited runners, and two of his own making, to score during the one inning he worked, then blew a save three days later by allowing the Rays three runs in his two-thirds of an inning.
And he took the Royals' June 25 loss to Tampa when, after inheriting another tie game, he uncorked a run-scoring wild pitch and gave up a sac fly that scored another run.
Clarke's skid is especially concerning because he'd been pitching so well before it began three weeks ago—after a rough start to the season (his ERA was 5.79 two days into May), he pitched 15 times without allowing even a single run.
But the glow of that excellent string of appearances is fading into the darkness of Clarke's recent subpar efforts. He's hurt the Royals and hurt them again Monday night. Time will tell whether he can get back on the beam; for now, he's established himself as one of the biggest uncertainties on Quatraro's staff, a reliever who, if his performance deteriorates much further, won't deserve, and shouldn't get, any more chances in important situations.