Rapid reaction: Royals 4, Red Sox 3

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Well, the best thing that can be said about this trip so far -- other than praising the mouth-watering postgame spreads clubhouse manager Tom McLaughlin arranged in both towns -- is that the Red Sox have actually gained ground in the American League East.

When they left town a week ago, the Sox were a game ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays. After being shut out by the last-place Astros in Houston on Monday night, their lead was down to a half-game.

But even after losing three out of four to a Kansas City Royals team playing inspired baseball (and when is the last time you’ve heard Royals and “inspired” in the same sentence?), the Sox packed up and headed off to their next stop -- Toronto -- having expanded their advantage over the Rays, who had lost four straight and were trying to avoid a sweep against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers on Sunday afternoon in L.A.

At best, Boston’s lead will be three games when they play again Tuesday in Rogers Centre. At worst, it will be two games with 42 games left to play, and no more three-city trips to navigate the rest of the way.

The Sox did not play a bad ballgame in losing Sunday to the Royals. John Lackey righted himself after a shaky start, retiring 16 of the last 18 batters he faced, and reliever Drake Britton escaped a bases-loaded jam in the eighth.

It’s just that the Sox could do little against familiar foe James Shields -- known as “Big Game James” when he was with the Rays -- and a lockdown Kansas City bullpen that gave up one run in four games here.

Lackey, pitching for the first time since twisting his ankle Monday night in Houston, walked the first two batters he faced Sunday, the only two walks he would issue all afternoon. But that led to Kansas City’s first run, Alex Gordon singling home rookie David Lough.

The Royals tacked on two more in the second on a double by Mike Moustakas, an RBI single by Jarrod Dyson, and a broken-bat RBI single by Lough after Dyson had stolen second. Base-runners have taken liberties against Lackey all season, stealing 28 times, more than double the next Sox pitcher.

In the third, Gordon, who broke out of a 2-for-22 skid during this series, hit a long home run to right, continuing a puzzling trend for Lackey, who has been taken deep 18 times this season, 14 times on the road but only 4 times at Fenway Park.

The Sox had taken a 1-0 lead in the first when Salvador Perez, Kansas City’s strong-armed catcher, hit Shane Victorino in the back at third base on an attempted pickoff. Victorino, who had doubled and stolen third, trotted home on the error.

The Sox closed to within 4-3 in the sixth when Daniel Nava beat out an infield roller, Stephen Drew doubled, and Ryan Lavarnway singled both runners home, but that would be all.

Reliever Aaron Crow struck out Mike Napoli and Stephen Drew to end the eighth with the tying run on, and closer Greg Holland finished the job, striking out Will Middlebrooks and Jacoby Ellsbury to end it.