Merrifield buoys Kowar after loss to Seattle

KANSAS CITY — In the first two innings of Jackson Kowar’s start against the Mariners on Sunday afternoon, the Royals right-hander couldn’t find the strike zone.

In the third inning, he found too much of the middle of the zone.

It added up to a five-run, four-inning outing for Kowar in the Royals’ series-deciding 7-1 loss at Kauffman Stadium, which was their second straight series defeat to end the six-game homestand.

Kowar’s ERA climbed to 11.45 in seven career games (six starts) at the Major League level, and he has yet to earn his first career win. The 24-year-old, part of the Royals’ pitching-loaded 2018 Draft that has already graduated to the Majors, has struggled with consistent command in two stints with Kansas City.

“The walks again killed me early,” Kowar said. “Anything I got beat on was just center cut. So it really all boiled down to command. Not locating pitches, either in the zone at all or when they were in the zone, catching too much of the plate to a couple of guys. Frustrating start again.”

Kowar threw 31 pitches in the first inning and faced a 2-0 deficit after two four-pitch walks and two doubles. He walked his third batter to lead off the second inning and allowed another run on consecutive singles.

Then in the third, Kowar threw some strikes — in the middle of the zone. Jarred Kelenic — who had three homers and two doubles this series — turned on a 3-2 fastball down the middle, and two batters later, Jake Bauers took a first-pitch fastball a Statcast-projected 460 feet into the fountains.

Kowar struggled with fastball command, but he never found a feel for his changeup — his signature strikeout pitch.

“Sometimes, too, it’s still adrenaline, it’s still just the excitement of being on a Major League mound,” manager Mike Matheny said. “That’s still part of the equation here. That’s not something you can completely ignore. He’s trying to work through it, and he’ll find it. Just need to find it sooner.”

Finally in the fourth, Kowar found his rhythm. Three groundouts in the middle of the Mariners’ order left him with some momentum. But he had thrown 97 pitches through four innings, ending his outing.

“I haven’t been able to grind through when I haven’t had my best stuff,” Kowar said. “In the fourth, I feel like I made a ton of quality pitches, 1-2-3. And then the reverse of that in the first. I just couldn’t quite make that change quick enough.

“I keep digging myself in those holes. Being able to make that adjustment a little earlier is something we’re going to keep pressing on.”

Kowar’s focus in between starts has been on a consistent delivery. When he gets out of his linear delivery, he finds himself going side-to-side — and the command falls off.

“It’s always part of what I’m doing,” Kowar said. “And in the pregame ’pen, I always want to feel that direction. What’s happening in the first, I’m getting out of it early with a little adrenaline and trying to do a little bit too much.”

Starts like Sunday’s are going to happen when the Royals have a rotation full of young arms. While they’re trying to win games, the record (67-82) at this point doesn’t matter as much as finding ways to be successful for 2022 and beyond.

That’s what second baseman Whit Merrifield tried to convey to Kowar in the third inning Sunday.

“I basically told him, ‘Let’s not be so concerned with results the rest of the season,’” Merrifield said. “Nobody wants to fail, but he’s going to be a big part of this team moving forward. And he’s not going anywhere. He’s going to get his chance up here. I just told him, ‘Don’t be so locked in and concerned with results the rest of these however many starts you have left. Just hone in on being up here, pitching up here, and try to figure out how to be successful.’”

It’s a hard balance to find, especially with Kowar’s competitiveness. The Royals want to win now, but the development of their young players is the most important part of the final stretch this season.

“It’s important for every player to go through that, and what better time for him to do it,” Merrifield said. “I told him, ‘It’s not important that you’re good now. It’s important that you’re good next year and moving forward, when we’re in position to do some fun stuff in the fall.’”