Through four-and-a-half innings on Monday, the Kansas City Royals were rolling en route to what could've been a 1-0 victory. Once starting pitcher Carlos Hernandez took the mound for the bottom of the fifth, though, things fell apart.
In the rubber match of a three-game series, the Baltimore Orioles ended up winning by a final score of 6-1. All six of the Orioles' runs came off Hernandez, and all six of them were scored in that fateful fifth inning. Hernandez lost control of his offerings, issuing multiple walks and even tossing a wild pitch.
A throwing error by catcher MJ Melendez didn't help matters whatsoever and by the time it was all said and done, reliever Amir Garrett finally came in and cleaned up the mess to limit Baltimore's damage to six runs. After the game, Royals manager Mike Matheny praised Hernandez's opening four innings and attempted to explain why the outing unraveled after that.
"I thought his first four were about the best first four he's had all season," Matheny said. "Then just gets into a bind in the fifth and gets his out, is at the bottom of the order. A walk [happens] and then gets into a place to get a swing-and-miss pitch and I think he just made a mistake that ended up costing a couple. It was hard to stop the bleeding once that happened but up until that point, I thought it was about as good as he's been."
Failing to stop the bleeding has been a common issue for Hernandez this season, as his ERA now sits at an alarming 7.15. In 2022, as they did a year ago, the Royals have been notoriously poor starters of games in regards to pitching. Their rotation oftentimes would put the offense behind the eight-ball before it even took the field. That wasn't the problem with Hernandez on Monday, but he still struggled to avoid letting one mistake compound into bigger and bigger ones.
Hernandez's command varied throughout the afternoon, as he mixed in a wide assortment of locations leading up to his dreadful fifth inning stretch. His fastball command, in particular, was poor. Aside from the high miss that led to a walk, all four singles above the belt were from fastballs that caught too much of either the plate horizontally or the strike zone vertically (or both).
Finding any sort of consistency with that four-seam fastball will be the key to getting Hernandez back on track. Not only has the pitch lost a couple of ticks from last season to this season, but opponents are flat-out crushing it with regularity. When it's at its best, Hernandez can use it to set up his slider-curveball combo. When it's all over the place, he doesn't stand much of a chance. The good version of Hernandez was present front and center to begin Monday's game, and Matheny doesn't want that to get lost in the shuffle moving forward.
"I think he was just cruising so well, then a couple of things went against the plan and I think he had trouble reining it back in," Matheny said. "It's a shame, because he had really good stuff today."