Junis impresses as spot starter

Lynn Worthy
The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jakob Junis delivers in the first inning of a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND — Kansas City Royals right-hander Jakob Junis turned in one of the most efficiently dominant starts of his career on Wednesday.

He left in position to earn the win after five scoreless innings.

Oh yeah, and he came into the game expecting he might pitch two innings before calling it a day and giving his best regards to a bullpen expected to be in an all-hands-on-deck mode.

Instead, Junis held his opponents to just one hit in a start for the second time in his career, and he extended his scoreless innings streak to nine.

Unfortunately for the Royals, they weren't able to hold on for the win after a pair of José Ramírez two-run home runs in a 4-2 loss on Wednesday at Progressive Field.

"I don't think anybody can ever ask any more of a pitcher than what Jake did today," Royals manager Mike Matheny said. "He went out with an aggressive mindset, thinking it's going to be a shorter outing. He just stayed aggressive and efficient. He just looks like a different pitcher right now. I'm just really impressed with how he stayed the course."

Junis struck out six and became the fifth Royals starter in club history to pitch five innings on 58 pitchers or fewer. Runelvys Hernandez was the most recent starter to pull off the feat on Aug. 11, 2002.

The lone hit against Junis came in the second inning on a Josh Naylor single through a shifted infield with two outs. Of the 15 outs Junis recorded, 10 were earned with three pitches or fewer. His pitch count by inning went: 9, 10, 16, 7 and 16.

"I found out Monday night when we were all watching the game at the hotel," Junis said. "He gave me the heads up that I'd be starting. He told me really not to worry about going deep into the game, nothing like that. Just kind of come out and do what I've been doing out of the bullpen, a couple innings and we'll see what happens. "The story was a little different today. I went a lot deeper than I thought I was going to go, but quick at-bats. Ten three-pitch or less outs, that's pretty crazy. That allowed me to go deep and just be efficient today."

Junis pitched two relief appearances, one inning each, on Saturday and Sunday against the Texas Rangers. He threw a combined 30 pitches in those outings. He cruised for the most part on Wednesday in a pitcher's duel opposite the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner in Indians right-hander Shane Bieber.

Despite there being no expectation of Junis going deep into the game, his pace and efficiency made it clear early on that the bullpen could relax. Into the fourth inning with Junis dealing, the only things possibly stirring in the bullpen over Junis' shoulder beyond the wall in right-center field were crickets.

As he started the fifth inning, there was slightly more movement as a few players did some light calisthenics, but still nobody picked up a ball through the first batter. Eventually, Jesse Hahn did start to throw.

Junis admitted he started to tire in the fourth, but he retired the side in order with the help of a couple of fly balls. In the fifth, he retired the first two batters but walked the third and Matheny popped out of the dugout.

"When I saw him coming out, I was kind of upset at myself for walking that guy," Junis said. "The infield was giving me high fives, saying great job and all that stuff. Mike pulls up and says, 'Woo, woo, woo, I'm not taking you out' I said f-yeah, let's do this. I got this guy. That fired me up."

Junis struck out the final batter he faced, Indians catcher Roberto Perez, swinging on a 1-2 cutter. Junis has started more games and pitched more innings for the Royals over the past three seasons than any of their other pitchers.

He prepared during spring training to pitch in relief as well as getting stretched out to start.

The Royals haven't formally announced a fifth member of their starting rotation, but Matheny has acknowledged that they'll need a designated fifth starter next week.

Junis said he didn't let the fifth starter spot enter his mind going into Wednesday's start. He didn't think of this outing as an audition of any sort. "I wasn't thinking about that at all," Junis said. "Literally, I thought I was going to go two innings today. I didn't think in a million years that I would go five innings. So that was never a thought. Luckily it worked out that way, I was super happy to go five innings and really take a load off the bullpen."