Junis can’t ‘dial in’ as Royals split twin bill

After snapping an 11-game losing streak in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader against the White Sox, the Royals couldn’t start a new streak. They dropped the nightcap, 3-1, at Guaranteed Rate Field, as Chicago’s lineup powered its way to one big inning against Jakob Junis.

But a twin-bill split, while not as sweet as a sweep, is something the Royals will take after watching the White Sox quickly climb to the top of the American League Central this month. Kansas City, which won, 6-2, in the opener, has dropped to third in the division at 17-21.

Junis was coming off a scoreless inning of relief and 17 pitches against the Tigers on Wednesday, so the Royals knew they might have to have multiple relievers piece together the nightcap. But there wasn’t a set pitch limit for Junis, and he prepared like it was a normal start despite only having one day of rest.

He worked around a two-out double in the first, but the White Sox didn’t slow down in the second. Andrew Vaughn launched a two-run homer on a fastball up and in that missed its target, and Zack Collins followed with a double. Junis got Billy Hamilton to line out, but that was the end of his night.

“I totally missed my spot with Vaughn,” Junis said. “Trying to go away and it ran back middle-middle in. And [Adam] Eaton, the at-bat before, tried to go up and in, left it down and into his swing path. Took advantage of it. Just couldn’t dial in my location when I needed it. It’s a recipe for disaster with me. Got to stay ahead and stay on attack.”

The last time Junis made a spot start, he went five innings against Cleveland and earned a spot in the rotation, where he posted a 3.80 ERA. The Royals moved him back to the bullpen at the start of May, and he had a 5.14 ERA in four appearances, with four home runs allowed in four innings.

“I just haven’t been as consistent,” Junis said. “The shape of my cutter hasn’t been as good. Missing my spots with it. Slider hasn’t been as sharp and getting that swing and miss like it was previously. But that’s going to happen over the course of a season. Highs and lows.

“And unfortunately, right now, the calendar turn to May has been a definite low compared to April.”

Junis held opponents at bay and was dominant with his new cutter in Spring Training and the first part of the season. But as he’s faced teams twice now, they’re starting to jump on the pitch. In his four starts in April, he held opponents to a .069 average on his cutter, according to Statcast; that jumped to .286 in May entering Friday.

“I think the league is always going to make adjustments, too,” manager Mike Matheny said. “You’re talking a player with new pitches, they’re going to adjust. First time they see it, it’s going to hold them off a little bit, but the more looks they get and whether that’s even on video, sometimes that quickens up that learning curve.

“He’s had a tough task here, too, right? Bouncing back and forth from different responsibilities. That’s a lot to ask. But I know it’s something he can handle.”

All four hits Junis gave up in 1 1/3 innings went for extra bases. Even his outs weren’t weak outs; Hamilton’s 87.5 mph lineout was the softest ball put in play against the right-hander.

After Tyler Zuber walked Danny Mendick, third baseman Hanser Alberto couldn’t hold onto a sharp liner from Nick Madrigal, which loaded the bases. Zuber got the second out of the inning, but Jake Brentz walked in the third run of the inning. All three were credited to Junis, two of them earned.

The bullpen shut down the White Sox from there, with only two hits allowed among five relievers. But the Royals’ offense couldn’t do much against Chicago starter Michael Kopech, except for Carlos Santana. The first baseman felt hip tightness running the bases in Game 1, so Matheny gave him a game off his feet with Santana serving as the designated hitter in the nightcap.

Santana responded by launching his seventh home run of the season in the third inning, putting the Royals on the board and cutting their deficit to two.

“I feel fine,” Santana said. “It’s a little sore, but I told Mike that I want to play. I told him I want to play, want to help my team and win another game. We lost, but tomorrow is a new day, and we’ll come back strongly.”