Keller grinds in series-ending loss to Yankees

NEW YORK — The fastball that Brad Keller fired into the outside part of the zone to strike out Tyler Wade looking was the hardest one he threw on Wednesday afternoon, clocking in at 95.8 mph and helping him escape a bases-loaded jam.

The problem was that it was his 114th pitch of the day. And it ended the fifth inning.

Keller labored through five innings in Thursday’s 8-1 series finale loss to the Yankees, allowing four runs on nine hits. The 114 pitches he threw are tied for the second most in his career following his start on Aug. 31, 2018, when he allowed two runs in eight innings against the Orioles.

Wednesday would be a much different story. The Yankees jumped on Keller early, with Aaron Judge’s 344-foot homer in the first and four singles giving New York a three-run lead after the second inning. Part of the long first inning stemmed from the Royals’ defensive positioning — Keller got the ground balls he wanted, but the Yankees found holes in the infield.

As the Yankees built their lead, the Royals stuck with Keller through a high pitch count because of how overworked the bullpen has been lately and coming off Wednesday’s game, in which the club used six relievers, four of whom were pitching on back-to-back days.

Long first innings like the one Keller had on Thursday have contributed to his up-and-down season, in which he’s 6-8 with a 6.39 ERA. The Royals’ Opening Day starter has allowed 19 combined runs in the first innings of his starts, the second-highest total in baseball behind only Cincinnati’s Luis Castillo (22).

Keller has now lost his last four games after going 5-2 in his previous eight.

“The first inning has set a tone for him that I believe takes him away from his game plan,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Guys are going to get into survival mode — ‘What pitch do I need to get through this?’ Instead of just trusting. Brad has been around, he’s still been around, he’s still learning. I’d like to see him continue to have trust in the movement that he has. Use the bottom of the zone and trust the fact that we’ll make plays behind him and that they are going to be hit toward people.”

After Thursday’s game, Keller described his frustration when he has baserunners and how it takes him from a ground-ball mentality to a strikeout mentality. His sinker/slider combination lends itself to ground balls rather than strikeouts, though, so he often has found himself getting behind in counts or hanging pitches that hitters don’t miss.

In the second inning, Keller allowed back-to-back walks before getting in a 3-0 count against Judge, who rocketed a liner to left field for an RBI single on a 3-2 pitch.

“I’ve dealt with this in the past, but I felt like I could nip it a bit quicker,” Keller said. “Now, it’s one of those things that’s stacked up on me where I give up a few cheap hits, I get a little bit frustrated. It’s obviously something I’m working on. I need to better at it, not getting frustrated. Because it is baseball and it’s Major League Baseball, and these guys are good hitters.

“Try not to be frustrated about hits and trust the game plan, getting ground balls and rolling through their lineup.”

Keller showed flashes of that mindset on Thursday. He induced a ground-ball double play to end the second inning, and after he loaded the bases with one out in the fifth, he got a popup in foul territory and pounded the zone against Wade for that inning-ending strikeout.

“Whenever I go, ‘Whatever happens, get a ground ball’ instead of sitting there pitching around a guy to try to get him to swing and miss … that’s when I’m at my best,” Keller said. “Sometimes when guys get on base with ground balls that see a hole, sometimes I make that mindset change to, ‘I need to get a strikeout’ when I shouldn’t. Ultimately I should just trust the mindset of getting a ground ball and eventually it’ll go to somebody.”

By the time Keller battled through his outing, the three-run deficit loomed large for the Royals, who went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and scored their only run on Sebastian Rivero’s first Major League hit, which landed for an RBI double.

Gary Sánchez’s three-run homer off reliever Anthony Swarzak put away the game in the sixth.

“Not that we want it to happen, but it’s just been kind of defining of our club offensively,” Matheny said of the Royals’ RISP woes. “When we let those slip away, it seems to have a carryover.”