Bannister falters as Royals drop finale

Royals drop finale

KANSAS CITY -- Every once in a while, even a pitcher devoted to game preparation like Brian Bannister sees something he'd never expect.

Bannister does everything to get ready for games. Studies his starts. Studies hitters. But sometimes, the game defies explanation, and it did on Jason LaRue's run-scoring triple in St. Louis' 9-6 win on Sunday afternoon.

"It moved 20 feet," Bannister said. "It's unnatural for a ball to move like that."

This was a game that Bannister and the Royals could never grasp. St. Louis took the lead early on Sunday and didn't give it up, winning the game and the series. Kansas City stranded too many runners (12) and the Cardinals had power -- see: Pujols, Albert -- and the benefit of Mother Nature.

That might've been the key to victory. The elements seemed to slap the Royals in the face early in the game. Strong winds turned Bannister into the unlucky loser and the Cardinals' LaRue into the second coming of Ted Williams.

Royals fans might be familiar with LaRue. Yep, he's the guy who hit .148 last year for Kansas City. In 66 games in 2007, he had 25 hits -- four of which were homers.

LaRue showed that power on Sunday, sort of. In the second inning, he lofted the ball into right field, a deep pop fly on most days, and the 20-mph winds carried it over the fence for a two-run home run.

LaRue also made a key play in the first inning, when Jose Guillen singled and David DeJesus barrelled toward home plate. DeJesus lowered his right shoulder and plowed into LaRue, who held on to the ball for the out. The outfielder played the second inning, but was replaced by Esteban German in the third. Although DeJesus walked in the first inning, his 13-game hitting streak is not over, as that walk doesn't count as an official at-bat.

Then came the seemingly impossible triple. LaRue lined a hit to center field, and Joey Gathright seemed to read it correctly. That's the way Bannister, Ross Gload, John Buck and manager Trey Hillman saw it. Only, this ball curved. It moved from Gathright's left to right like a pitch.

It might've been the crazy wind. Might've just been crazy spin. Might've been both. Whatever it was, LaRue got a triple out of it and two more RBIs.

"You can't really do anything about it," Gathright said. "It was like a cutter. You can't get mad. You just go get the ball and throw it."

In between LaRue's RBIs, St. Louis got another gift from outside influences. With runners on first and third, Rick Ankiel popped up to shortstop Mike Aviles. Aviles said he got a read on it and went to the right spot. But when the ball reached its peak, it happened to do it in the middle of the sun. Aviles lost sight of the ball, and it fell to score a run.

It was the second time this season the elements made it rough for Bannister. Against Texas in April, strong winds led to his worst start of the year. This time, he tried to compensate for the winds, which were pushing the balls to right field, by not throwing toward the first-base side of the plate.

That nibbling, coupled with his attempt to introduce a new changeup against lefties, caused Bannister to lose some control. But in the end, after he gave up seven runs in 4 2/3 innings, he said he didn't regret any of his pitches.

"It's really just elements," he said. "Balls that are normally in the yard are home runs."

Kansas City couldn't come back all the way but did stick around. The club made it 7-4 in the fifth. That deficit widened in the next inning when Pujols smacked a two-run home run off reliever Joel Peralta. Kansas City scored a run in each of the seventh and eighth innings but didn't manage to put together a multiple-run rally.

It was the second loss in a row for Kansas City and the first time it had lost consecutive games since June 11. The club put together its best run of the season against National League teams and, throughout the Interleague dream stretch, the Royals kept insisting they could beat any team in any league -- they were just playing good baseball.

On Monday, they'll finally find out. Interleague Play is over, and the pesky Orioles await. Baltimore is barely above .500 this season and has had a losing record in recent years, but it owns Kansas City. Before the Royals took the final game of a four-game series in May, the O's had won 12 straight.

That was a streak that defied logic. On Sunday, Bannister and Royals found out there's plenty about baseball that does.

"It came down to two plays today," Bannister said about LaRue's triple and Ankiel's pop fly. "It's nobody's fault. It just happened."

Mark Dent is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.