Kansas City Royals’ bullpen collapses late, serves up walk-off defeat at Houston Astros

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For the second time in their past three games, the Kansas City Royals gave up a lead late and fell victim to a walk-off homer in the ninth inning.

This time, Houston Astros star slugger Yordan Alvarez inflicted the pain with a solo blast off Royals closer Scott Barlow with two outs in the ninth to hand the Royals a 7-6 loss in front of an announced 33,936 at Minute Maid Park on Monday afternoon.

Royals rookie catcher MJ Melendez (2 for 4) belted his seventh and eighth home runs of the season, and left fielder Andrew Benintendi (3 for 4, walk, 2 RBIs) was on base four times in a Fourth of July matinee and the opener of a four-game series.

Infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield had two hits (2 for 5), including a double, and a stolen base in the loss for the Royals (29-49).

“That’s one of the tougher ones of the season,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said of the loss. “(Jonathan) Heasley comes out and responds after the offense comes out and gives us some room to work. The guys were doing a great job of keeping the pressure on.

“Heasely kept getting the shutdown (innings). I thought he threw as good as we’ve seen him throw. We were able to add that one late with MJ being able to tack that on to give us a little bit more of a lead. You like the chances of us being able to finish that one off.”

Heasley, the Royals’ starting pitcher, gave up just two runs on three hits in six innings.

The Royals scored the first five runs of the game, but the Astros (52-27) chipped away with two runs against Heasley. Then they really went to work against the Royals’ bullpen.

Newcomer Wyatt Mills, a sidearm right-hander, gave up a run in the seventh to make it a two-run game, 5-3. But Melendez’s second homer of the day came in the top half of the eighth to restore a three-run cushion.

The Astros scored three more runs in their half of the eighth to tie the score before the Royals could potentially hand it over to Barlow with a lead and a chance to lock it down in the ninth.

Garrett takes the blame

Instead, Matheny went to left-handed reliever Amir Garrett with a man on in the eighth after Mills walked the leadoff man of the inning. Garrett failed to record an out.

“Just not throwing strikes,” Garrett said of his outing. “I don’t get hit hard, but right now I’m really battling command. I had a few good ones and my command was really good. But just with me right now, I’m not throwing strikes. That’s been hurting me all year. At the beginning of the year it wasn’t. Hopefully, I can go back to do what I was doing. I’m going to go look at video and find out if I’m sped up or if I’m not on time or something.”

Garrett faced three batters, walked the first two — the left-handed Alvarez and the right-handed Alex Bregman — and then gave up a two-run single on a ball flared over the infield and into center field by left-handed-hitting Kyle Tucker.

“A ballgame like this, we deserved to win it,” Garrett said. “I didn’t do my job today. I lost it for us. I can take that. I’ll put it on my shoulders. It was my fault.”

The first run was charged to Mills. The second runner Garrett walked came around to score after Garrett had been replaced by Taylor Clarke.

Entering the day, Garrett’s career splits were markedly better against left-handers. He averaged 2.74 strikeouts per each walk against lefties. He’d held left-handed batters to a slash line of .207/.316/.354 in 460 plate appearances.

Having held lefties to a slugging percentage below .400 reinforced his stance that lefties “don’t do damage” against him.

“The biggest thing with me right now is throwing strikes, that’s it,” Garrett said. “No excuses. I just wasn’t throwing strikes. It sucks because that was a winnable ballgame right there. I’m coming in right there, that’s the role I want to be in.

“Those are the spots I want to be in, and I didn’t throw strikes. A soft hit to Tucker and it scored two. Clarke did a really good job of limiting the damage. I didn’t do my part at all today.”

In the top of the ninth, Bobby Witt Jr. walked with two outs against Astros reliever and former Blue Valley High School standout Ryne Stanek. That gave the Royals their only base-runner against Stanek, who entered the day with a streak of 20 scoreless innings over his past 23 appearances.

Witt got thrown out attempting to steal second base with Vinnie Pasquantino at the plate. The Astros had pinch-hit for rookie catcher Korey Lee the previous inning and substituted in former Royal Martin Maldonado, one of the game’s best catch-and-throw defenders and a former Gold Glove winner. Witt was called out on a bang-bang play.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Royals seemed poised to send the game into extra innings, especially after center fielder Michael A. Taylor made a diving catch on a ball he had to charge for the second out.

“That’s a gutsy play and we needed it,” Matheny said of Taylor’s catch. “It got us into a spot. We know Alvarez has been hot and he’s a good hitter. He’s dangerous. Scott knows how to navigate around. Unfortunately — I didn’t see the pitch again — but I know, even though we got behind, we were just being careful all the way through that at-bat. But this guy can do some damage.”

Alvarez, who began the day leading the majors in OPS (1.051) and slugging percentage (.645), tied for second in home runs (23) and and fourth in on-base percentage (.406), blasted a 3-1 slider an estimated 444 feet.

“We had him pretty good today,” Melendez said of Alvarez. “We had limited what he had done, struck him out twice. That last at-bat, he came up and was clutch. We tried making a good pitch, and he’s a really good hitter.”