KANSAS CITY — It won’t be long now until the Royals have most of the rotation they envisioned starting the season with back in place.
Right-hander Jakob Junis returned from the injured list on Sunday and provided an encouraging start against the White Sox, going 4 1/3 innings with two earned runs. Kansas City, though, lost 9-2 and was swept in the three-game series.
The Royals have been missing right-hander Brad Keller and left-hander Mike Montgomery and — until Sunday — Junis from their rotation. That has left them scrounging for starters through the early part of the season, resulting in several “bullpen” games.
But with Junis back, and with indications that Keller should return this week, manager Mike Matheny will welcome some order restored.
Junis spent much of Spring Training working on a slower slider and a changeup to add to his sinker-slider repertoire. On Sunday, Junis threw his slider 31 times out of 64 pitches, and many of them came in at under 80 mph. It also got the first hitter, Luis Robert, to strike out swinging.
“The slider was good right out of the gate, very first hitter,” Matheny said. “Sinker had good life. They worked hand in hand really well.”
Junis’ slow slider often takes the shape of a curve and tends to show up on Statcast as such.
“But I didn’t throw any curveballs,” Junis said. “Just mixing the speeds on the slider with the same grip.”
Junis gave up six hits and walked two but benefited from three double plays, two of which he started himself.
“Any time you get double plays,” Junis said, “that’s just huge.”
With a runner on first base and one out in the first inning, Junis snared a line drive off the bat of Jose Abreu and easily doubled up the runner. In the same scenario in the second, Eloy Jimenez rifled a shot that Junis instinctively kicked his right foot at, knocking the ball high in the air. Third baseman Maikel Franco charged forward and grabbed it for a putout, then threw to first to double up the runner.
“Looking back on it, it was pretty dumb,” Junis said of kicking at the ball. “The shift was lined up perfectly to where he hit it. Just one of those things. … I don’t know if I’ve ever done that, kicked it. Pretty cool play. But all in all, not a very smart play.”
Alex Gordon blasted his first home run of the season, a shot estimated to have traveled 437 feet by Statcast, in the bottom of the frame. But the game got out of hand for the Royals during a seven-run White Sox seventh, which was aided by six singles, a walk and a throwing error.
The Royals had talked throughout Summer Camp about the need to get off to a quick start. They know a 3-7 record doesn’t get the job done.
“There are things we have to clean up,” Matheny said. “But there are also things we’re doing well, and we need to point those out.
“But the bottom line is you play this game for W’s. And right now, they’re hard to come by. We’re a couple hits away from turning a couple of those losses into wins. You win a few games in a row and you’re right back to where you’re talking about being in the middle of this thing.”