KANSAS CITY -- Justin Masterson entered Friday night's start with the lowest run support of any pitcher in the American League at 3.75 runs per start.
The Indians right-hander received even fewer runs in a 6-3 loss to the Royals at Kauffman Stadium, as the offense again couldn't capitalize on scoring opportunities in the series opener.
Masterson was able to minimize damage and escape jams in his six innings, but was denied in his bid for a 12th win this season. Meanwhile, Royals starter Luis Mendoza kept Cleveland's bats in check in earning his eighth win.
With the Twins' game against the Tigers postponed, the Indians slipped back into last place in the American League Central, trailing Minnesota by a half game.
Clutch hitting was hit-and-miss for the Indians. Cleveland scored all three of its runs on two-out hits, the first coming on Michael Brantley's RBI single in the third inning.
The Tribe got another clutch knock in the seventh. Trailing 4-1, Ezequiel Carrera led off with a single to knock Mendoza from the game and reliever Tim Collins plunked Shin-Soo Choo before getting two outs. But Carlos Santana lined a single up the middle, scoring both runners and making it a one-run game.
Earlier in the game, the Tribe wasn't able to cash in a golden chance. After back-to-back singles by Choo and Jason Kipnis to start the game, Asdrubal Cabrera advanced both runners into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. But Mendoza sandwiched a strikeout and a groundout to second around an intentional walk to escape the jam.
"Offensively, we continue to struggle, especially on our situational hitting," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "The first inning was a good situation where we could just take the lead, and who knew what would have happened after that. We failed to drive in the run with a runner on third and infield back."
After going 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position, the Indians are now hitting .236 in such situations.
"Some people can do it, some people can't," Acta said. "Experience is part of it. It's same thing that's being taught all the way from rookie ball to the big leagues. In the 30 Major League clubs, guys are taught what to do in those situations. Some guys are more relaxed when the situation is not high-leverage. Some guys panic a little bit and get out of the strike zone. It comes and goes when it comes to certain guys. The same guy [Santana] who failed in the first inning, got a two-run single with two outs later on. It's part of the game, just a little bit more magnified when you're scuffling the way we are."
While there were chances, Mendoza was solid, allowing just two runs in six innings for the win -- his third in five appearances (four starts) against the Indians this season.
"He threw the ball well," Acta said. "He was aggressive with his fastball and then changed speed, and threw that changeup whenever our guys were looking for fastballs. He kept them off-balance. We could've done better, but we just didn't execute when we had to."
After the Royals added two insurance runs in the eighth, Acta said, "it was impossible to come back at that point."
Despite the lack of success on the offensive side, though, reviews for Masterson's outing were positive.
"Masterson threw the ball OK," Acta said. "I felt like at the beginning of the game, he was falling behind and got a little erratic there. But overall he threw well. He threw ground balls. They didn't even get an extra-base hit off of him. He threw his ground balls, and some got through and he ended up giving up four runs."
The right-hander ran into some early trouble, as the Royals scored a pair of the runs on four hits in the second. Thankfully for Masterson and the Indians, a Kansas City baserunning mistake ended that attack.
In the third, the Royals put runners at the corners with no outs, but they only managed one run on a Mike Moustakas sacrifice fly. And, with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth, the Royals got a run on a groundout. But that threat ended two batters later on a double-play ball by Jeff Francoeur.
"Maybe we need to water the ground a bit more or something," Masterson joked. "They hit it into the ground, a couple balls bounced over the infielders' heads. Even there in the second or third, got in on the hands, but they were strong enough to take it over the second baseman's head. In an overall sense, I felt like I pitched pretty good. Yet again, another one that unfortunately didn't work out.
"But even with that we were able to minimize what definitely could have been. It could've gotten a lot worse than what it did. Especially that inning, getting the double play. That's why you look at it, and you feel like you did a decent job out there -- of course, runs-wise, there's always stuff you could do better -- but golly. It's tough."
Masterson allowed four runs on seven hits in taking his third straight loss and 15th of the season. He realized there were plenty of balls that didn't bounce his way, but he didn't blame the lack of run support, a problem that's followed him all season.
"I haven't pitched as well this year. It doesn't matter if you're scoring runs or not scoring runs, I haven't pitched that well this year," he said. "That's more of the disappointing part, at least consistently in the overall sense. We've had some decent games here and there, but until you're able to do your job consistently, you're not talking about what other people are doing."
Vinnie Duber is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.