The plan this postseason has been pretty straightforward for the Kansas City Royals: Take an early lead and hand the game over to a terrific trio of hard-throwing relievers.
A four-run third inning provided the lead Saturday night. But starter Jason Vargas got knocked out early and Jason Frasor, Danny Duffy and Brandon Finnegan failed to provide the bridge to the back end of the bullpen in an 11-4 loss to the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of the World Series.
“It just didn't work tonight,” manager Ned Yost said. “It doesn't work every night, you know. Most nights we do a pretty good job doing it. It just didn't work tonight.”
Now, instead of being in control, the Royals are tied two games apiece with the Giants and will send struggling starter James Shields to the mound against San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner in Game 5 on Sunday.
The Royals hoped to take a 3-1 cushion into that game with a chance to clinch the Series or at worst head back home for the final two games with the lead. It appeared that might happen when they scratched together four runs in the third to take a 4-1 advantage.
The inning ended on a comic note when Vargas started jogging toward first base after taking a ball from Jean Machi with the bases loaded. After getting almost halfway down the line, Vargas realized that it was only ball three, froze in a playful stance and returned to the plate.
“Just a mental fart,” Vargas said. “We haven't been in the box that much. It's just one of those things that happen. It didn't shake me up too much.”
The Royals laughed in the dugout and Vargas took strike three on the next pitch to end the inning. There wasn't much else to laugh about for Kansas City on this night.
Vargas gave up another run in the bottom of the third and was replaced by Frasor after allowing a double to left-handed hitter Joe Panik leading off the fifth.
“As a starting pitcher you want to get as deep in the game and close the gap to the bullpen as much as you can,” Vargas said. “I wasn't able to do that tonight. I put our skip in a tough spot when Panik led off that inning with a double. We went to what's been working for us.”
The middle relievers needed to deliver six outs to get the Royals through the sixth inning, when Yost would be able to turn the game over to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. That trio has three wins, seven saves and an 0.84 ERA in 32 1-3 innings this postseason. But now they will have to wait at least one more night to get a chance to protect another World Series lead.
Instead, five runs scored before the end of the sixth and the Royals' bullpen took its first loss of the postseason after seven wins.
On the other side, San Francisco's relievers provided 6 1-3 scoreless innings.
“I believe in our guys here,” Giants lefty Jeremy Affeldt said. “Our bullpen is a big reason why we're here as well. Let them be talked about. It's a good thing but I also think that we're really good, too.”
Frasor got one out before he was lifted after allowing an RBI single to Hunter Pence. The left-handed Duffy then came in and loaded the bases by giving up a hit to Pablo Sandoval and walking Brandon Belt.
The Giants tied the game on a sacrifice fly by Juan Perez, but Duffy was lucky only one run scored on the play as center fielder Jarrod Dyson made a diving catch to rob the Giants of a hit.
The game didn't stay tied for long as the 21-year-old Finnegan fell apart in the sixth, a night after getting two key outs in a Kansas City win and becoming the only player to appear in the College World Series and the big league version in the same year.
The Giants loaded the bases with one out in the sixth against Finnegan, who got Pence to hit into a forceout to keep the game tied. But then, with the switch-hitting Sandoval batting from his weaker right side, Finnegan allowed a two-run single that put San Francisco up 6-4.
Belt followed with another RBI single. Finnegan was charged with two more runs in the seventh and took the loss.
“Baseball can pick you up quickly and hit you in the gut quickly,” Finnegan said. “You can't have everything go your way. It's still part of the dream. We just had a little setback.”