When it comes to shutdown bullpens in the American League, we’re used to the A’s always being a part of the conversation, for good reason.
In Monday night’s 3-2 loss at Kansas City, however, it was the Royals’ bullpen that made the difference in the opener of a four-game series between these teams.
The A’s did well to drive up the pitch count of Royals starter Yordano Ventura and get him out of the game after six innings. That usually means good news for the A’s, who often feast on the opposition’s relief pitching in the middle and late innings.
But the Royals simply replaced Ventura, a hard-throwing right-hander with nasty stuff, with another hard-throwing right-hander with nasty stuff in Kelvin Herrera. He buzzed through the A’s in order in the seventh, reaching 101 miles per hour on the radar gun on a strikeout of Jed Lowrie and then punching out John Jaso with a changeup that dove out of the strike zone.
In the eighth, Wade Davis struck out two more in another 1-2-3 inning. And All-Star closer Greg Holland shut the door in the ninth despite putting the first two hitters on base. The inning turned when Derek Norris grounded into a third-to-first double play that squelched the rally. Stephen Vogt flied out to center to end it.
It was a potential sacrifice bunt situation with the A’s trailing by one run and runners on first and second with no outs. But Norris came in with terrific numbers this season when hitting with runners in scoring position and less than two outs. A’s manager Bob Melvin told reporters after the game that he wasn’t inclined to have one of his best clutch hitters square around to try and move runners along.
Whether he chose to bunt or not, the A’s couldn’t afford to not execute with that golden ninth-inning opportunity. They mustered just three hits for the entire game, starter Sonny Gray was good but not great, and the margin for error is very small right now with the way the A’s are swinging the bats.
They’re hitting .221 and averaging just 3.88 runs over their past 17 games. They’re also catching the Royals at the wrong time. Kansas City has now won eight in a row, and took over first place from Detroit in the AL Central with Monday’s win.
[RELATED: A's aim for more separation in the standings]
The calendar reads August, and the Royals – who haven’t made the postseason since 1985 – are atop the standings. It makes for exciting times in Kansas City, and manager Ned Yost has to feel pretty good taking a lead into the late innings with the stable of relievers he can call on.
That’s a feeling Melvin knows well. But Monday night, it was the team in the opposing dugout that benefited from its own stingy relief corps.