Taking advantage of the runner-on-second rule implemented for the 2020 season’s shortened schedule, the Kansas City Royals used a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly against reliever James Karinchak in the top of the tenth, then got three straight strikeouts from Greg Holland in the bottom of the inning with the tying and winning runs on base to hold off the host Cleveland Indians, 3-2, on Saturday afternoon.
In a speedy two hour and 52 minute contest, there was little excitement for either club as both offenses were limited to brief scoring outbursts. The Indians had opportunities late in each of the last two innings, but were unable to come through in the clutch, stranding five men (three in scoring position) in those at bats.
The Royals backed rookie starter Brady Singer with a pair of blasts in the top of the first against Indians starter Mike Clevinger. Cleveland’s number two starter struck out Whit Merrifield swinging and got a liner to second from Adalberto Mondesi to start the day’s festivities. A questionable checked-swing ball to Jorge Soler kept his at bat alive and he took advantage of the call, homering to left to score the Royals’ first run of the season. Two pitches later, Salvador Perez jumped in on the fun, driving a moonshot deep to the left field bleachers to give the Royals a 2-0 lead.
The rookie Singer saw little resistance from the Tribe early on. He worked around a one-out walk of Jose Ramirez in the first, getting a pair of liners to left to close the frame. In the second, he struck out Franmil Reyes to start the inning before getting rookie Daniel Johnson to line to center in his first big league at bat and Oscar Mercado to ground to short.
Clevinger settled down after the two bombs in the first, retiring the side in an economical nine-pitch inning. On a pitch/high-stress innings count, he needed 13 more pitches to get out of the top of the third, working around a double by Merrifield and stranding him at third on a strikeout swinging of Soler.
The Indians got to Singer in the third, but missed on the chance for a big inning. After a strikeout by Roberto Perez, Bradley Zimmer got the Tribe’s first hit of the game with a single to shallow right. He moved to second on a single to center by Cesar Hernandez. Ramirez delivered the first run of the game for Cleveland as he jumped on a first pitch slider and parked a single into right field, scoring Zimmer from second while Hernandez motored into third and benefited from an off-line throw from Merrifield. Francisco Lindor struck out swinging for the second out. Santana stepped to the plate in a big scoring opportunity, but a wild pitch from Singer on a 2-2 offering allowed Hernandez to score from third with the tying run. Santana grounded to first to leave Ramirez stranded at second.
Lindor made what will wind up being one of the big plays of the season to start the fourth, robbing S. Perez of a base hit by ranging far to his right in the hole on a sharp grounder and firing a jump throw to Carlos Santana, who made a great scoop at first to complete the play. Clevinger struck out Alex Gordon for the second out before Ryan McBroom singled to right. Clevinger left him at first, getting Maikel Franco to line to left.
Singer kept the Indians limited in his final two innings. He struck out a pair in the fourth and worked out of the fifth, stranding a two-out runner at second after Hernandez walked and moved up on a wild pitch. Ramirez struck out swinging to leave him in scoring position.
After the McBroom single in the fourth, Clevinger set down the final ten men that he faced. He struck out a batter in perfect innings in the fifth, sixth, and seventh, leaving the ball game at that point with 90 pitches tossed on the afternoon and no real stressful innings after the Royals’ two quick blasts in the first.
Ian Kennedy came on in relief of Singer for the Royals in the sixth. The team’s closer a season ago, he fired two perfect innings before turning the game over to veteran Trevor Rosenthal, who was efficient in the eighth with a pair of strikeouts.
Nick Wittgren pitched for the second straight day, giving up a hit but no further damage in the eighth for the Tribe. Karinchak came on in the ninth, debuting his new number 99 while notching a strikeout in a scoreless frame.
The Indians had the opportunity to walk off a winner in the bottom of the ninth against Scott Barlow, who was on for the second straight day. Lindor led off the inning with a single to center and Santana walked to put two on. A check swing from Reyes served the purpose of a sacrifice bunt, moving both runners up. The rookie Johnson was intentionally walked to load the bases and put on a force at the plate or a double play chance, but Barlow did not need it. He struck out Mercado swinging on four pitches, then worked back from a 3-1 count to strike out R. Perez for the fourth time on the day to leave the bases full of Indians and send the game to extras.
This year’s extra inning rules put the previous inning’s final batter on second base. Royals manager Mike Matheny swapped Gordon for the speedier Brett Phillips and sent up pinch-hitter Erick Mejia for McBroom. He successfully bunted a high fastball to Ramirez at third for the first out, putting the go-ahead run 90 feet from the plate. Karinchak went offspeed heavy to Franco, but he left the third one up in the zone and the veteran infielder launched a deep fly to center, easily deep enough to score Phillips from third to put the Royals up by a 3-2 count. Nicky Lopez battled Karinchak for 12 pitches before drawing a walk, but he was caught stealing to end the inning.
Holland came on for the bottom of the tenth, seeking his first save of the year. With Greg Allen pinch-running at second base for R. Perez, manager Terry Francona did not take Matheny’s approach and let his batters swing away. Zimmer was hit by a 2-2 pitch to put the winning run on at first, but Hernandez struck out looking on three straight, Ramirez was cut down on a 2-2 pitch, and Lindor struck out swinging with the count full on a slider low and in to end it.
Both clubs are now 1-1 on the year as all five teams in the American League Central are tied in the division.
SUN SHINING IN CLEVELAND
Clevinger had one brief blink-and-you-missed-it rough spell on the mound in his season debut on Saturday. He ended his outing after seven innings of work, giving up the two first inning runs and four hits in total, striking out six and issuing no walks. He was first pitch strike to 15 of 25 batters faced and threw 60 of his 90 pitches for strikes on the day.
After the game, he shared his opinion of his first inning mishap.
“It’s very frustrating. In my opinion, he swung,” Clevinger said in regards to Soler’s checked swing that was called a ball. “But they’re human back there, too. If they’re good umpires like most of them are, they’re going to go back and look at the tape and look at where they went wrong. I saw the cap of his bat. Early in my career, it was easy to let that steamroll into other innings, but it was a quick wipe. I knew I was making good pitches. Actually, that was a great piece of hitting by him. It wasn’t that terrible of a pitch, he muscled that thing out.”
The homer was Soler’s first of the season after hitting a career- and AL-high 48 a year ago.
SINGER SHOWS POTENTIAL
Singer took the no-decision in his Major League debut, working a swift five-and-fly before turning the game over to the bullpen. He limited the Indians to a pair of runs on just three hits with two walks and seven strikeouts. He threw 49 of 80 pitches for strikes, but struggled to get out in front of hitters, throwing just eleven of 20 first pitches for strikes. He did showcase some solid swing-and-miss stuff, getting the aggressive Indians bats to miss 14 times on the day.
“He’s got velocity, which we knew,” said Francona after the game. “He kind of had that strike-to-ball breaking ball that we had a really tough time off of all of their pitchers, laying off today. We’re going to have to be a little more disciplined, regardless of who’s pitching.”
The 23-year-old became the quickest Royals pitcher to make his debut since Bret Saberhagen in 1984. Singer had made just 26 minor league appearances in his professional career last season, split between High-A and Double-A. Saberhagen had 27 minor league starts under his belt before he made his first big league appearance just days before his 20th birthday.
TOUGH LUCK LOSER
Karinchak was dealt his first big league loss despite not allowing an earned run. Extra inning rules state that the runner-at-second will not be charged to the reliever that inherits the situation.
“I thought he was tremendous. He came in pumping strikes,” said Francona. “For me, that’s probably the best guy to pitch when there’s a runner on second, you have an open base, and you can let his stuff play. He just left a breaking ball up to Franco that he hit for the sac fly. He was really good though.”
Karinchak worked two innings, allowing one unearned run. He walked one batter, gave up a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly, and struck out one. He threw 21 of 28 pitches for strikes in his first appearance of the season.
EXTRA INNING EXPERIMENT
Francona spoke after the game about how the decisive tenth inning was played out by both sides.
“They were extremely aggressive, with what they were running with their bunt play,” he said. “We were a hit away from winning the game was our thinking. We were okay starting out to bunt, but if you’re bunting into an out…their first baseman was so far in. That’s really difficult to convert on something like that.”
The Indians went 1-for-10 with runners on base in the ball game, stranding eight men.
Clevinger shared his take on his first glimpse of the new rule, implemented over the last couple of years on the minor league level and added to the mix for the 2020 season to help limit the long-term damage some teams could face from playing multiple lengthy extra inning games without having the depth of players in the minors to call upon as reinforcements this year.
“This isn’t travel ball, man. This is a perfect game,” Clevinger said. “You know how hard it is to get a runner on second base on the back end of any bullpen? How incredibly hard that is? And now all of a sudden you just get someone on second base with a guy like Karinchak on the mound. I’m not happy about it. I’m sure when other teams face the situation and this happens to them, you’re going to get similar reactions.”
The news on Tyler Naquin on Saturday was worse than the team wanted. Cleveland placed the outfielder on the 10-day injured list with a hairline fracture in his right big toe. The move was backdated as he suffered the injury during Monday’s exhibition win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team hopes that he will return to the roster around August 1.
Hunter Wood passed successfully through waivers and was outrighted to the Indians’ Alternate Training Site in Eastlake, where he will continue to work with the players there. Zach Plesac was formally recalled from Triple-A Columbus to take Naquin’s spot on the 30-man roster ahead of his start on Tuesday against Chicago.
The Royals optioned catcher Meibrys Viloria to their Alternate Training Site prior to the game to make room on the roster for Singer, whose contract was selected from the same location.
The first series of the 2020 season concludes on Sunday when the Indians and Royals take the field in the rubber match of their three-game set.
Carlos Carrasco (6-7 with a 5.29 ERA in 12 starts and 11 relief appearances last season) will make his first start since May 30, 2019, and will look to bounce back from a rough outing his last time out against the Royals when he allowed six runs in just two-thirds of an inning against them on April 12 of last season.
The Royals will go with a bullpen game. Barlow and Holland are the only relievers expected to be off-limits as they have pitched in each of the first two games of the series. Kansas City’s 30-man roster is composed of 17 pitchers.
First pitch from Progressive Field is scheduled for 1:10 PM ET on Sunday.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images