It might be time to forget the odds when free-swinging Alcides Escobar draws a four-pitch walk with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game.
By BOB DUTTON
The Kansas City Star
Yep, that’s how the Royals pulled out 2-1 victory over the Texas Rangers on Friday at Kauffman Stadium: Patience from Alcides Escobar, who came to the plate with 17 walks in his 616 previous plate appearances.
“When I walked to home plate,” he said, “I told myself, `I’m going to take a strike. It doesn’t matter if (Rangers reliever Neftali Feliz) throws me a fastball right down the middle. I’m going to take a strike.’”
Feliz threw four straight balls.
“I'm frustrated that I wasn't able to locate it where I wanted to,” Feliz said through an interpreter. “But that's part of the game and I need to keep my head up and try it again tomorrow.”
The Royals also got a strong start from Ervin Santana, who benefited from a bushel of web-gem defensive plays — including three by Escobar at shortstop — in clinching their first non-losing season since 2003.
Santana didn’t get the victory. That went to Luke Hochevar, who got the final two outs in the eighth inning. Hochevar improved to 5-2 when Greg Holland worked a one-two-three ninth inning for his 44th save.
The victory boosted the Royals to 81-72, which moved them to a season-best nine games over .500 and to within 2 1/2 games of the American League’s final wild-card berth.
Postseason remains a long shot. The Royals must still climb past three clubs with just nine games remaining, but when Escobar draws a four-pitch walk in a key situation … let’s just say stranger things have happened.
“He’s locked in right now,” manager Ned Yost said. “There’s a difference between who he is now and who he was two weeks ago. He’s so locked in to what we’re doing right now. His at-bats have been good.
“When he’s locked in, he’s a much more patient hitter and a much more disciplined hitter, which is what he showed tonight.”
OK … Escobar’s last walk came on Aug. 27. Whatever. He showed remarkable discipline against Feliz, who has made just six appearances since returning from a season-long rehab after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
“I haven’t seen this guy for a long time,” Escobar said. “He’s coming back from the DL. Before, he was a guy who threw 99 or 100 miles an hour. Now, it’s like 92-94. I want to see him throw.”
For all that, Escobar insisted his walk wasn’t the inning’s turning point.
So let’s reset.
The Royals started their winning rally when Jason Frasor, 4-3, surrendered two-out singles to Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas. That put runners at first and third.
Yost inserted David Lough as a pinch-hitter for Justin Maxwell, whose two-out double in the second inning provided the Royals’ earlier run.
Moustakas stole second uncontested before Lough worked back from a 1-2 hole for a walk that loaded the bases.
“The best part of the game was D-Lough,” Escobar said. “David Lough’s at-bat. He did a great job in getting that walk.”
Lough said he is still adjusting to a role that includes occasional pinch-hitting duty.
“When I first started doing it,” he said, “I wasn’t having much success, either. I go down early 1-2 (to Frasor), and he has a nasty split-finger (fastball).”
“So I just kind of crouched down and tried to put together a good at-bat. Just try to get a good pitch and put it in play. Just do something instead of striking out.”
Frasor walked Lough, which loaded the bases; and Feliz walked Escobar, which produced the winning run. The Royals have won 17 of their last 25 games.
“This is a blast,” Lough said. “I love it. I think everybody in here knows what we’re capable of doing. We’re riding with it. We’re in that chase for the wild-card.”
Santana, in possibly his final home start as a Royal, carried a 1-1 tie into the eighth inning before departing after Ian Kinsler’s one-out single.
“I didn’t want to come out,” Santana admitted, “but it was not my decision. We’re just trying to win a ballgame, and that’s what we did tonight.”
Santana gave up five hits while striking out four and walking one. He has one scheduled start remaining, next Wednesday at Seattle, before becoming a free agent in the off-season.
“I’m not thinking about it,” he said. “I’m just enjoying the moment right now. It’s a great time. Everybody is excited. All of the fans are excited.”
Texas starter Martin Perez gave up one run and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings before exiting with runners at first and second. In came Neal Cotts to face Alex Gordon, but Maxwell tried to steal third, on his own, on the first pitch.
It wasn’t close.
Before Escobar’s walk, the only runs came in the second inning. A.J. Pierzynski gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead with an RBI double, but Maxwell matched it with a two-out RBI double.
Texas’ only other threat came in the fifth. Santana retired 11 in a row after Pierzynski’s double before David Murphy looped a two-out double to right field.
Leonys Martin followed with a broken-bat soft chop to the mound. A shard of the bat wheeled toward Santana, who ducked before grabbing the ball. But Santana bobbled the ball and chose not to make a throw.
The result was a single that put runners at first and third. After Martin stole second, Kinsler worked back from an 0-2 hole for a walk that loaded the bases.
Santana avoided disaster when a 1-2 pitch to Andrus went to the back wall because the carom came back to catcher Salvy Perez — instead of disappearing into an advertising board like two times earlier in the season.
“This time,” Santana smiled, “there was no magic. No disappearing ball. The ball came back to Salvy. That a good thing.”
Even better: Santana then stranded all three runners when Elvis Andrus swung through a 94-mph fastball for the third out.
Better still: Escobar’s plate discipline when it mattered most.
“This team is playing good, man,” Escobar said. “Everybody is playing good.”
To reach Bob Dutton, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow his updates at twitter.com/Royals_Report.