KANSAS CITY, Mo. — David Ortiz doesn’t pay very close attention to the standings until September. Experience has taught him that much. But Big Papi had a question Sunday after the Kansas City Royals beat the Red Sox, 4-3.
“How far back is that team in the race?” he wanted to know.
Told that the Royals were only 4½ games behind in the wild-card race, Ortiz shook his head.
“Man, they would be tough to play for somebody in the playoffs,” he said. “They have a lot of talent. Those young guns are coming after people. Look at what they did to us.”
Kansas City took three of four games from the Red Sox and is now 18-5 since the All-Star break. The Royals showed the Red Sox a mix of pitching, power, speed, and good defense over the weekend.
“They’re a solid team. They pitch well. They’re athletic,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell, whose team is 3-4 on a 10-day road trip that continues in Toronto on Tuesday. “They’ve got some good hitters in that lineup.”
John Lackey overcame a rocky start to pitch seven innings. He allowed all four runs and is 0-4 in his last five starts.
With the Sox ahead, 1-0, after scoring an unearned run off Royals starter James Shields, Lackey walked David Lough and Eric Hosmer on 12 pitches to start the bottom of the first inning, missing twice with full-count fastballs.
“It was kind of a grind early. I wasn’t feeling real great,” said Lackey, who was pitching at Kauffman Stadium for the first time since 2009.
Billy Butler grounded into a double play but Alex Gordon dropped a soft single into right field, driving in Lough.
Kansas City jabbed at Lackey for two runs in the second inning. After Mike Moustakas doubled, Alcides Escobar bunted him to third. Jarrod Dyson then singled through a drawn-in infield, scoring Moustakas.
Dyson stole second and scored on a broken-bat single by Lough.
Stolen bases have been an issue for Lackey. He has allowed 29, three on Sunday, the most of any Red Sox starter. Eight of the steals have come in the last two starts.
As a team, the Sox have greatly improved how they control the running game. But Lackey remains easy to run on. Given his 3.32 earned run average, it’s little more than a rough edge that needs to be smoothed out.
“It’s something that we’re working on to get better,” Farrell said. “John recognizes it. Certain things are more comfortable for other pitchers.”
Lackey acknowledged the steals “can be a factor” and that he tries to make it tougher on the runner. But his priority is the batter.
“The runner on base is not [the same] importance as making a pitch,” he said.
Lackey sprained his left ankle in the second inning of his start at Houston last Monday. But that didn’t affect his command.
“They had it taped up so much I would have had to break my whole leg to roll it again,” Lackey said. “It didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Said Farrell: “Based on his bullpen, I don’t think there was an effect. He was sharp in the bullpen. Came out and had some difficulty finding the strike zone. They forced him to throw some pitches in the first couple of innings but I can’t say the ankle had an adverse effect on how he was throwing the ball today.”
After giving up four runs on five hits and two walks in the first three innings, Lackey put only two other runners on base. He left after 111 pitches having retired 14 of the final 16 batters he faced.
“A little too late,” Lackey said.
Trailing, 4-1, the Sox scored twice in the sixth. Daniel Nava singled, took third on a double by Stephen Drew, and both scored on Ryan Lavarnway’s single down the left-field line.
That was the final hit for the Sox.
Shields (7-8) allowed three runs on seven hits over seven innings. Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, and Greg Holland (32d save) handled the final two innings. Crow struck out two, as did Holland.
Drew was 2 for 4, extending his hit streak to 12 games. Will Middlebrooks was 1 for 3 with a walk and has been on base four times in two games since returning to the majors.
That the Sox weren’t able to even tie the game probably didn’t come as a surprise to Lackey.
He is 7-10 in 21 starts thanks largely to a lack of run support. The Red Sox have averaged 3.42 runs in the games Lackey has started, 5.38 runs otherwise.
Lackey allowed seven hits and the two walks over seven innings. He struck out five.
“I take pride in throwing innings for sure, especially when you don’t have your good stuff,” he said. “To still be able to get through seven, there’s definitely some pride in that.”Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.