July served as a return to form for Kansas City Royals right-hander Brad Keller, but August certainly didn’t start the way he would’ve liked.
The Royals on Sunday afternoon handed the ball to Keller, the anointed ace of the pitching staff, with hopes of avoiding a sweep at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays in their final game north of the border.
But Keller’s outing ended early as a result of a precautionary call made by the training staff and coaching staff, and the Royals went on to drop their third game to the Blue Jays, 5-1, in front of an announced 14,427 at Rogers Centre.
The Royals (45-59) began their road trip having won eight of nine games. After an off day on Monday, they’ll continue their nine-game road swing with a series against the AL Central Division-leading Chicago White Sox starting on Tuesday.
Keller (7-10) came out of the game after three innings because of lower back tightness. He’d thrown 51 pitches (33 strikes) and left with the Royals trailing 3-0.
The back issue initially cropped up before the game.
“As soon as I stepped on the mound and threw a couple pitches, it just kind of locked up on me,” Keller said. “I tried to pitch through it, thinking it’s one of those things. I’ve dealt with this in the past. I thought it was just one of those things that would eventually loosen up. For some reason, this time it just never really loosened up.”
Keller in July posted his best month after a rocky start to the season — he registered a 5.97 ERA in the first half.
In four July starts, Keller pitched into the seventh inning in each of his starts and went 1-1 with a 2.28 ERA and a .194 opponent’s batting average. He turned in four consecutive quality starts, and he struck out 26 and allowed 19 hits and 10 walks during that 27 2/3-inning stretch.
Sunday, he gave up all three runs in the third inning. A leadoff single by No. 9 hitter Reese McGuire gave the Blue Jays (54-48) a starting point, and George Springer followed with an RBI double. Springer got thrown out as he tried to stretch it into a triple.
Then Teoscar Hernandez’s bouncer up the middle went for a single, and Marcus Semien smashed a 1-1 sinker to center field for a two-run home run.
Despite feeling the tightness affect his pitches in the third inning, Keller tried to talk his way into remaining in the game longer.
“I just wanted to get deep into the ballgame,” Keller said. “I think that’s important as starters. Our previous starters in this series had done that really well. That was my thought process, just try to match what they’ve done, get deep in the ballgame. Help our bullpen out.
“Any chance we can do that, we want to. I felt like I could stay in the game. Maybe that was just adrenaline taking over. I think that’s anybody’s competitive nature, just keep going.”
The Blue Jays entered the day leading the majors with 157 home runs, the second-most through 101 games in team history.
Keller received a visit from Royals manager Mike Matheny and head trainer Nick Kenney during the inning, but Keller completed the inning.
“We were keeping a close eye,” Matheny said. “The first looked good, and the second pretty good as well. Then the third, he started not being able to finish like he needed to. So really (we were) giving him an opportunity to talk to us and he said it was OK. But then we just made a decision not to push him to the point where it would or could potentially affect his arm or the rest of his body by compensating.”
Offensively, the Royals lone run came on Edward Olivares’ ninth-inning solo homer. The Royals had just six hits in the game, and they were 0 for 4 in their few chances with runners in scoring position.
Olivares, recalled from the minors on Saturday, went 2 for 4. This latest stint marks the fifth time he’s been recalled since late May. He has now appeared in 13 games for the Royals this season.
“It’s something that you can’t control,” Olivares said with assistant strength and conditioning coach Luis Perez translating from Spanish to English. “You’ve got to be ready when you get the call, and be ready to come up and contribute.”
José Berríos made his Blue Jays debut after having been traded by the Minnesota Twins. The Royals collected four hits against Berríos in the first two innings, but they could not break through.
In the sixth, they loaded the bases with the help of two hit batters. However, Olivares struck out to end the inning.
“It’s part of the game,” Olivares said. “I got both breaking balls during the at-bat, and he worked both sides of the plate. I was going out there to try to get a good pitch and put a good swing on it, but it’s part of the game. It didn’t work out that time.”
Berríos (8-5) pitched six scoreless innings and allowed five hits and one walk. He struck out seven.
“I think we had four hard hits in the first inning, we had two singles and then a couple lineouts that really could have gotten us going in the right direction,” Matheny said. “Unfortunately, they were hit right at people. I thought they were putting together good at-bats early. THen he got his momentum. We had trouble getting anything going after that until late. We needed that big hit. It just didn’t happen.”
The Royals bullpen gave up two runs. Josh Staumont gave up a run in the fourth on a solo homer by Santiago Espinal. In the fifth, Jake Brentz got two outs but then walked three batters in a row. Richard Lovelady took over for Brentz, and he walked the first batter he faced with the bases loaded to force in a run.