Fresh off the injured list, right-handed reliever Joel Payamps gave up a pair of home runs in the ninth inning, including a walk-off as the Kansas City Royals fell in heartbreaking fashion.
Payamps, who’d missed 16 games on the IL for COVID-19 related reasons, was throwing his second inning when he gave up homers to Victor Reyes and then the walk-off to highly-regarded rookie Riley Greene as the Royals lost 4-3 to the Detroit Tigers in front of an announced 23,502 in the second game of a three-game series at Comerica Park on Saturday afternoon.
The loss evened the series between the teams at one game apiece and set up a rubber match on Sunday.
“(It’s) things that happen along the way,” said Payamps, who was in Detroit on Friday but got reinstated from the IL prior to Saturday’s game, with assistant strength and conditioning coach/Latin American coordinator Luis Perez interpreting. “There’s a lot of games left. I just have to forget about it and attack the day.”
Royals starting pitcher Kris Bubic didn’t complete five innings, but he left with the team leading by a run through 4 2/3 innings. He turned it over to the bullpen after 94 pitches. He’d allowed two runs on five hits and three walks. He also struck out four.
The left-hander exited with two men on in the fifth inning and the Royals leading 3-2.
Royals reliever Jose Cuas got the final out of the fifth with help from an outstanding diving stop by rookie shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., who threw to first from one knee in time to get the inning-ending out.
Amir Garrett, newcomer Wyatt Mills, Cuas and Payamps covered the final 4 1/3 innings on the mound for the Royals.
The one-run lead remained intact going into the eighth when Payamps took over and retired the Nos. 5-7 batters in the Tigers lineup in order on eight pitches.
The Royals (28-48) sent Payamps back out for the ninth after he’d cruised in the previous inning and with two left-handed hitters (including the switch-hitting Reyes who batted left-handed against Payamps) due up.
Payamps, who pitched a multiple-inning outing during his minor-league rehab assignment, entered the day having held left-handed hitters to a .202 batting average and a .275 on-base percentage in his big-league career.
Payamps also hadn’t allowed a homer in 27 innings this season before the ninth, a career-long stretch. There were just 11 pitchers in the majors with at least 25 innings this season who hadn’t given up a homer.
“We’ve got guys down today,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said of sticking with Payamps. “We’ve got to see who can get us outs. He was the guy who has some experience. He did a great job in the eighth. We let him take it home.”
Royals closer Scott Barlow recorded his sixth save of four outs or more on Friday night, the first game in a stretch of 18 games in 17 days for the club.
Be all that it was, Payamps struck out the first batter of the ninth, Spencer Torkelson, on four pitches, then gave up back-to-back homers.
Payamps said he felt like the pitches were “there” in both the eighth and the ninth inning, but obviously they yielded different results. Both pitches were 1-0 fastballs.
“I think the pitches were right,” Payamps said. “I tried to go outside on the first one, and the other one was inside. I haven’t really seen the video yet, but I think the pitches were where I wanted them.”
Dozier, veteran hitters sparked early offense
Royals leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield went 2 for 4 with a stolen base, a run scored and an RBI. Center fielder Michael A. Taylor also went 2 for 4 and raised his batting average for the season to .286.
First baseman Hunter Dozier drove in a pair of runs.. In his previous 15 games entering Saturday, he’d slashed .268/.349/.500 with three home runs, four doubles and 10 runs scored.
For the second straight day, the Royals gave their starter an early lead to work with. This time, they didn’t wait until the second time through the lineup. They started the scoring in the first inning after the first two batters of the game reached base.
Merrifield, who had missed a double down the left-field line by less than an inch on a foul ball, singled and stole second base. Andrew Benintendi drew a walk. Then with one out and bases loaded after Vinnie Pasquantino walked, Dozier ripped a two-run double into left field.
“I just think guys are getting confidence,” Dozier said of the early offense. “They’re working hard in the cage. They’re trying to do everything right, trying to learn, trying to get better. I just think guys are having better at-bats and getting better in those situations.”
The Royals settled for the two runs after MJ Melendez struck out and Taylor popped up in foul territory.
“We had one more out there for sure,” Matheny said. “We need to put the ball in play and try to make something happen. We get second and third with less than two outs, we need to put some pressure on their defense, get the ball in play. It’s a lot easier said than done sometimes.”
The Tigers answered with a run in the bottom of the first thanks to a leadoff triple by Greene and a Javier Baez sacrifice fly.
The score remained 2-1 until Merrifield added an RBI single in the fourth inning with two on and one out. Merrifield, who entered the day batting .331 against the Tigers and .329 at Comerica Park, drove in his 33rd run of the season.
Bubic looking for more efficiency
Bubic’s start marked his seventh start of fewer than five innings this season. His previous start against the Texas Rangers also lasted 4 2/3 innings.
“There were some long ABs there that racked the pitch-count up, and obviously a couple pitches there at the end that maybe I want back,” Bubic said. “Overall, I thought execution was a lot better than it was in the previous outing. Just go onward from here.”
After needing 23 pitches to get through the first inning, Bubic got more efficient in following innings until the fifth when he threw 25 pitches in getting his last two outs of the day.
Bubic gave up a one-out walk and back-to-back singles with two outs in the fifth, including an RBI single by Eric Haase that made it a one-run game and ended Bubic’s outing.
“I think sometimes maybe it’s a mix of kind of seeing how a hitter reacts versus just attacking guys,” Bubic said of his high pitch counts early in outings. “I think the first AB of the game I did a good job getting ahead but obviously made a mistake with two strikes. I think it’s just a matter of treating that first inning like any other inning.”