As much as he wanted to get back to the big leagues, Kansas City pitcher Leo Nuñez might have given some thought to ignoring the phone call informing him he was coming to Boston to face the Red Sox last night.
Nuñez hadn't been back to the Fens since Aug. 4, 2005, when he was summoned in relief to pitch with the bases loaded. He gave up a three-run double to Edgar Renteria, walked the next two batters, then gave up a grand slam to Jason Varitek.
Without retiring a batter, Nuñez had a hand in giving up seven runs in the span of four hitters. That's not something you want on the back of your baseball card.
But the Royals were desperate for a starting pitcher, and the call went out to Nuñez , who has been mostly relieving in the minor leagues. Yet in his first big league start, he inflicted a little misery back on the Sox. The Dominican righthander did not get credit for the decision in Kansas City's 9-3 win -- he left after Julio Lugo's double to open the fifth -- but he was able to sit back while the lightweight Royals ran up the score on Tim Wakefield and two relievers.
"I remember that," Nuñez told reporters (reliever Octavio Dotel translating for him) when reminded of his last visit. "It wasn't good, but this time today, it was great."
For the Sox, meanwhile, this isn't good: They have failed to take advantage of the season's longest homestand, splitting the first six games of an 11-game exercise, allowing the Yankees to make up ground in the American League East. The Yankees lopped another game off the Sox' lead, drawing to within eight (seven in the loss column) by beating Toronto, 3-2, in 10 innings. The Sox, who led by 12 games July 5, have gone 3-6 since, while the Yankees, who last night matched their high-water mark of three games over .500, have gone 7-2 in that span.
This isn't good, either: The Sox ran into two outs on the bases. After his second-inning double, Mike Lowell was cut down trying to advance to third on Coco Crisp's fly ball. Worse, Dustin Pedroia was doubled off first on David Ortiz's fly ball with the Sox down seven runs in the seventh.
"We're not firing on all cylinders right now," said Wakefield, who had won three in a row and five of his last six starts, but last night was charged with six runs on nine hits in 6 1/3 innings, the wheels coming off in a five-run seventh in which reliever Javier Lopez hardly distinguished himself.
The Royals, peppering balls over the head of shallow-playing Manny Ramírez -- if left field is the Atlantic Ocean, Ramírez plays a couple of yards offshore, which looks great when he's catching sinking liners, less so when balls pass overhead like jets on the way to Logan -- touched up Wakefield for a couple of runs in the fourth. Mark Grudzielanek beat out an infield hit, Mark Teahen grounded a ball through the right side, and both scored on Billy Butler's double over Ramírez, the ball landing on the warning track.
The Sox spend a great deal of time determining how they set their defense, accumulating piles of data on opposition tendencies. Do their numbers support having Ramírez play as shallow as he does at Fenway, which is in a different area code from most left fielders?
"Regardless of what the numbers show," manager Terry Francona said, "if you try to force somebody into playing where they are not comfortable, they are not going to make plays. You can look at depths all you want, and we spend a lot of time not just [on left field]. Every position. But if a guy is out of his comfort zone, he is not going to make the plays. You can push somebody back all you want, but if their first thought is 'in,' that's not going to work."
What's comfortable for Ramírez, however, is a potential source of distress for pitchers with an expectation that certain balls will be caught. Was Wakefield, now 10-9, frustrated? "Yes and no," he said. "I mean, Manny's been playing shallow all year, so I can't really say whether or not that ball's being caught even if he's playing back. It's just one of those things."
Smart base-running by Royals rookie Alex Gordon created the run that made it 3-0 in the fifth. Gordon singled, stole second, moved to third on a wild pitch that strayed only a few feet away from catcher Doug Mirabelli, and scored on Tony Peña Jr.'s double over Ramírez.
The Sox countered with a run in their half, after Jimmy Gobble replaced Nuñez. Lugo advanced to third on J.D. Drew's liner and scored when second baseman Grudzielanek bobbled Pedroia's slow roller for an error.
But the Royals, shut out on three hits Monday night by lefthander Kason Gabbard, extended their lead in the seventh. Reggie Sanders doubled to left -- a ball that an outfielder playing at normal depth either catches or holds to a single. Gordon singled, and John Buck doubled them home, Gordon making a nice read of Buck's ball off the wall. Wakefield retired Peña on an infield out, and Francona summoned Lopez, who promptly walked David DeJesus. The runners moved up on a passed ball, Grudzielanek followed with a bloop single for another run and took second on the throw, and he came around on Ross Gload's single.
"It was 3-1 going into the seventh and I just kind of lost a feel for the ball," Wakefield said. "It just seemed not to go down at the end. I don't know the reason why."
The Sox had a dozen hits, three apiece by Lowell and Lugo, their total just one fewer than that of the Royals. But the Sox were 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position, while the Royals were 7 for 16. The Sox scored a couple on four straight hits with two outs in the eighth, the big hits a triple by Crisp and a double by Lugo, but Royals closer Joakim Soria easily dispatched Drew on strikes, ending their last threat.
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.