KANSAS CITY — Kris Bubic had already allowed three runs by the time he worked Lars Nootbaar into a two-strike count in the first inning Sunday afternoon, but Bubic also had two outs and was looking to get out of the frame with minimal damage and a minimal pitch count.
Instead, he danced around the zone to Nootbaar, ending up walking the Cardinals’ outfielder. It wasn’t until three batters later that Bubic got out of the 34-pitch frame, putting the Royals in a deficit before they came to bat. And six batters into the second inning, Bubic was out of the game.
The Cardinals jumped on the lefty for seven runs in the Royals’ 7-2 loss on Sunday at Kauffman Stadium, completing the three-game sweep by their surging cross-state rivals. The Cardinals completed a perfect six-game road trip through Pittsburgh and Kansas City, only the second unbeaten road trip of at least six games in franchise history. The first time they did it was from May 5-10, 2017, led by their former manager, Mike Matheny.
Now the Royals manager, Matheny witnessed the second time from the opposing dugout. Royals pitching allowed 22 runs this weekend, while the offense managed six, including two Sunday on Salvador Perez’s 30th home run of the season in the eighth inning.
Cardinals starter J.A. Happ, whom the Royals have beaten before with the Twins, pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings.
“That’s an embarrassing game, when it goes down like that and we can’t get anything going offensively,” Matheny said. “A couple of days of that in a row. Every time we have a series where we don’t display the kind of baseball that we’re capable of playing — yeah, it comes down to wins and losses — but we also have a high expectation of what it should look like, and it didn’t look right.
“Guys are wearing that. They take that personally. We made the adjustments, we have some conversations, all of us, about what we need to do better. And we come back and put that behind us and get ready for the next one.”
The next one is a bigger test. The American League West-leading Astros come to Kansas City for a four-game series starting Monday.
The Royals couldn’t find momentum offensively but were already trailing three batters into the game. Bubic allowed three consecutive singles to the top of the Cardinals’ order, which saw all nine batters come to the plate in the first inning, before getting two outs. The two-strike walk to Nootbaar stood out especially from the first, especially since Bubic has focused on attacking the zone in his previous starts.
“I think it still goes back to count leverage,” Bubic said. “I got to some two-strike counts today and wasn’t really able to put a guy away or make a pitch to get out of it. … I thought it was a good take 3-2, but I don’t want to be in that situation in the first place. Just stay on the attack at all times. And execute early in the count as well as late in the count. I know that’s what pitching is, but at the end of the day, it just comes down to execution and especially in the two-strike counts.”
Bubic passed the 50-pitch mark in the second inning and needed 56 to get through 1 1/3. He allowed a single and double to the top of the Cardinals’ order again before Nolan Arenado and Tyler O’Neill hit back-to-back homers for the second time this series — also marking Arenado’s third homer of the series. The Cardinals pounced on elevated pitches, and Bubic couldn’t find the bottom of the zone for most of his outing. Of the 26 swings Bubic registered, six were whiffs. His changeup averaged 98.1 mph exit velocity.
“Days like this happen,” Bubic said. “I’m not going to overanalyze or do anything crazy, but obviously this one’s tough because that whole thing pretty much falls on me.”
Nootbaar’s double off Bubic ended the shortest start of his career, forcing the Royals to piece together a bullpen game during a 17-game stretch without an off-day.
The bullpen held the Cardinals scoreless for 7 2/3 innings, allowing just three hits and one walk. It was the kind of pitching the Royals needed Sunday.
It just came on the wrong end of the game.
“We’re trying to win,” Perez said. “We never come to the ballpark and try to lose, especially three in a row. I think we just [flush it], come in tomorrow and try to win. And play hard. Whatever happens, we’re not going to change that. The mentality now is throw today’s game away, throw the last series away and come in tomorrow concentrated on winning the game tomorrow.”