A soft drizzle speckled the diamond as the hottest team in baseball closed out a 7-4 decision, their second consecutive sweep and their seventh consecutive victory. The skies had threatened all afternoon, but they, like the visiting San Francisco Giants, waited too long to disturb the momentum of the Royals.
As rain dotted Kauffman Stadium, the 27,359 fans here waved brooms and hung on each pitch thrown by closer Greg Holland. He required 25 in all, a hefty sum that allowed the Giants to load the bases and bring the go-ahead run to the plate. Holland whipped his head into the outfield as Pablo Sandoval’s line drive sailed toward center field, and exhaled when it nestled inside the glove of Jarrod Dyson.
The crowd exploded. The Royals dugout emptied, frazzled, perhaps, but no worse for the wear. And this team stayed hot, holding tight to the second Wild Card spot while nipping at Detroit’s heels, a half-game back in the American League Central.
“Times like these, you just can’t wait for the next game to start,” Billy Butler said. “That’s the way it is. That’s the atmosphere in here. We’re rolling.”
Kansas City (63-53) caused bitten nails on Friday. They eased the tension with a late-game flurry on Saturday. In the series finale, their lineup thrashed Tim Lincecum, stole more bases than they had in a game since 1998, and collected their 15th victory in 18 games. The offensive surplus included a pair of two-run homers by Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez.
Danny Duffy (7-10, 2.57 ERA) tired in the seventh and allowed the Giants to pick up four runs in 6 2/3 innings. But by the time he departed his club was well in front. Holland gave up two hits and issued a walk before collecting the third out and his 34th save.
“It’s so much fun,” Duffy said. “It’s so much fun to be in this clubhouse. We’ve got to keep riding. We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing, playing the way we are. And that’s just as a whole unit.”
The outcome assured, the Royals retired back to their victorious clubhouse. The televisions inside the room showed the final moments of Detroit’s extra-innings skirmish with Toronto. The players had long departed by the time the Blue Jays completed their 19-inning victory.
For the Royals, the situation appeared so unlikely only a few weeks ago. Four games into the second half, Kansas City lingered two games below .500 and eight behind Detroit. Manager Ned Yost insists the resurgence has not surprised him. He stopped short of thumping his chest, but he did remind, in so many words, that he told the public so.
“It’s hard to explain,” Yost said. “I knew they were going to do it. I told you all along. I told you at the end of the first half ‘This is a good second-half team.’ I just knew it. I don’t know how I knew it. I knew it. There was no wavering there.”
The attitude has seeped into the clubhouse. The group continues to eye the Detroit Tigers, intent on running down their in-division bullies.
“Our mindset is try to be the best team from the second half on through the rest of the season,” said outfielder Jarrod Dyson, who went three for three with three stolen bases. “We’ve been doing a great job of that.”
The latest victim was Tim Lincecum. Yost saw Lincecum at his apex, in 2007 and 2008, during Yost’s final years in Milwaukee. His fastball touched the upper 90s. He tormented batters with splitters and sliders. His funky delivery fascinated observers and perplexed opponents. “There were times, man, when we couldn’t do anything against him,” Yost said.
No longer does Lincecum invite awe. He has become one of baseball’s least productive starters. During the past three seasons, his 4.62 ERA heading into Sunday was the worst among the 36 pitchers who have tallied 500 innings during that stretch.
His ERA would spike in Sunday’s first inning. After an infield single by Nori Aoki, Salvador Perez walked for the first time in the second half. Butler fought off a slider and punched it into right for an RBI double. Lincecum gifted a run with a wild pitch. The tittering from the fans had scarcely ceased when Lincecum hung a curveball to Gordon.
His blast towered until it fell in the Giants' bullpen. As the ball soared off his bat, Gordon allowed himself a grin — or perhaps he was squinting through the hints of sunlight shining on Kauffman Stadium. He had homered the day before during Nebraska Night, an event for his alma mater at the park. On Sunday, he went deep as fans clutched his bobblehead.
“Gordy’s not swinging the bat well because it was Husker Day or Bobblehead Day,” Yost said. “Gordy’s swinging the bat well because he’s seeing the ball well and putting good swings on it.”
A small-ball clinic followed the muscle flexing. The Royals ran on Lincecum without fear. They swiped seven bags in all, their most in a game since Aug. 1, 1998. The fifth was a heist of third by Alcides Escobar in the fourth. He scored afterward when Aoki singled through the right side of the infield to banish Lincecum from the game.
“We jumped on him early,” Butler said. “He never got settled.”
The Royals did not slacken their pace. Facing reliever Juan Gutierrez, Aoki stole his third bag of the day. Perez clobbered a 92-mph fastball located at his waist. He tied Mike Moustakas for the team lead with 14 homers.
From there, the Royals played out the string. Duffy held firm until the seventh. Holland lacked sharpness, but still tossed a scoreless ninth. The Giants shuffled back into the visitors clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, steamrolled by their hosts.
The schedule will not relent this week. The Royals nipped the Athletics for two victories in three games at the start of the month. After trouncing their Bay Area brethren this weekend, a four-game rematch looms. The hottest team in baseball will face the club with baseball’s best record.
“Hopefully, we can keep it going against Oakland,” Gordon said. “The best team in the league right now.”