The bat helicoptered over the visitors’ dugout and crashed into the fans seated a few rows back from the action.
The pitch that ejected the lumber of Rangers catcher Tomas Telis was a 79-mph change-up down the heart of the plate in the sixth inning. The culprit who caused the flying wood was Jason Vargas, who exhibited a pinpoint level of control in completing a Royals sweep with a 4-1 victory on Wednesday.
Vargas baffled the Rangers for 6 2/3 scoreless innings. He struck out five and walked none. He scattered six hits – only two occurred in the same inning. That was the seventh. After a softly-struck single to left by second baseman Luis Sardinas, manager Ned Yost cracked open his bullpen and removed Vargas. The crowd at Kauffman Stadium showered him with a standing ovation.
“He always seems to get himself into tough situations,” outfielder Alex Gordon said. “But he never gives in. And he always finds a way to get out of it.”
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The Royals required their finest pitching to finish this homestand with a flourish. They won five times, lost four and suspended one game with Cleveland. The Indians trounced the Tigers at Progressive Field, so the Royals extended their advantage in the American League Central to 1 1/2 games.
Kansas City has a date set with Detroit next week at Comerica Park. But first, they must play three games at Yankee Stadium. The tension should only heighten as September continues.
To close out the week, the offense held yet another exhibition in minimalism. Gordon belted his fourth homer of this 10-game stint at home. Salvador Perez and Billy Butler traded doubles in the seventh to add some breathing room.
A fresh face tacked on another run. Terrance Gore, a 23-year-old pinch-running dynamo, ran for Butler at second base after an RBI double. He jetted to third with two outs, then sprinted home after a wayward throw by Telis. Gore captured his first career stolen base and run all in one sequence.
“That’s what I’m here for,” Gore said. “To cause havoc.”
In the wee hours of the morning on July 9, Vargas, 11-7 with a 3.14 ERA, felt excruciating pain in his stomach. He was later rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy. The operation cost him a month of action. When he landed on the operating table, his ERA was 3.31, and he had exceeded the expectations of Yost.
In his seven starts since returning, Vargas has outperformed that already impressive pace. He has posted a 2.66 ERA across those 44 innings.
“We’ve had some good success since we came back,” Vargas said. “It can usually go either way. I definitely like the position we’re in right now.”
In the afternoon, Yost found himself in a familiar position: debating the merits of playing Butler. The Royals spent more than $1.8 million when they acquired Josh Willingham from Minnesota. After missing a few days because of sore muscles in the rib area, Willingham retained a spot on the bench. Yost is committed to using Butler despite an unproductive homestand.
Butler hit .185 in the first eight games of this stay at Kauffman Stadium. He stumbled through three unproductive at-bats Tuesday. Yost admitted he may need to yank at-bats from Butler if his performance continues to wane.
“Billy’s got the ability to get hot and carry us for a while,” Yost said. “He can do some things offensively. So we really, really need him. But we’re running out of time. We’ve got to score some runs.”
That process has become painful. The Royals managed only one hit, a two-out double by Alcides Escobar, in the first three innings against Blue Springs High graduate Nick Tepesch.
The fourth inning proved more fruitful. Omar Infante opened with a single. Up came Gordon. Tepesch tested Gordon with a series of fastballs away. Down in the count, 3-1, he was forced to throw a strike. Gordon crushed the 90-mph fastball and lifted the pitch over the center-field wall. The estimated distance was 409 feet.
The long ball afforded Vargas two runs of cushion. He had looked cool under duress all evening. He gave up a one-out double in the third and a leadoff double in the fourth. Both times, the runner could not advance past second.
“He was sharp tonight, had his good command,” Yost said. “Spotted his fastball well. His change-up was really working for him. The off-speed stuff was good. Just pitched a great game.”
Although the homestand wasn’t wildly successful, the Royals finished on a hot streak.
“It was an OK homestand,” Gordon said. “I thought we could have done better. We had a lot of opportunities, as far as the offense was concerned, to make this a better homestand than it was. But it is what it is. I like the way we responded after the Cleveland series.”