As the Royals pushed across runs late, the prospect of Jason Vargas finishing the game increased.
Two insurance runs in the eighth inning clinched it. Vargas headed out for the ninth to a loud ovation from the Kauffman Stadium crowd, and he awarded them by completing the task.
Vargas and the Royals prevailed over the Indians 4-0 on Friday, with Vargas turning in the team’s first complete game this season and his first shutout since 2014.
“I don’t know if I felt stronger as the game went on,” Vargas said. “I felt pretty good from the start of the game.”
In improving to 7-3 and dropping his ERA to 2.08, Vargas got plenty of assistance from an infield that turned four double plays in the first six innings.
“They say that a double play is a pitcher’s best friend, and Vargy and the double play were snuggled up tight tonight,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
They also helped the game breeze along in 2 hours, 19 minutes, the fastest game played by the Royals this season.
The pitching was superb on both sides with Royals’ nemesis Josh Tomlin looking to add to his string of success. He carried a four-game winning streak against the Royals into Friday, the most recent triumph a complete game of his own last Sunday in Cleveland.
Vargas and Tomlin matched zeroes through five innings, when the Royals scratched a run on the strength of Lorenzo Cain’s legs and team replay official Bill Duplissea.
With one out in the sixth, Alcides Escobar roped a single up the middle, the Royals’ first hit and base runner since the second inning.
Escobar took second when Tomlin was charged with a wild pitch on a ball in the dirt and took third when Mike Moustakas hit a come-backer that Tomlin knocked down.
Cain took a big cut but toppled the ball a few feet on the grass. Tomlin bounced and fired a strike with first base umpire Ed Hickox raising his arm. Out!
But Duplissea immediately went to work, and the Royals issued a challenge. The call was overturned and the Royals had a 1-0 lead.
The Royals stretched the lead one inning later. Jorge Bonifacio, who hit a long home run off Tomlin last weekend in Cleveland, appeared to have another one.
But this one hit the padding atop the left-field wall and bounced up and back into the field. Bonifacio had a one-out double. He moved to third on Brandon Moss’ deep fly to right-center, and that brought up Whit Merrifield, who had been hitless in his first two plate appearances while trying to extend his 16-game hitting streak.
Merrifield did just that. He belted a double, scoring Bonifacio, and his 17-game streak is the longest active in baseball.
“Big spot in the game,” Merrifield said. “That was a big run for us. Gave Vargy a little bit of cushion.”
The eighth provided even more insurance when Moustakas hammered his 14th home run of the season with one out in the eighth, a solo shot to right-center. That was Tomlin’s final pitch. But the Royals weren’t finished.
Cain continued the eighth with a single and scored from first when Eric Hosmer belted a double off the wall in left.
Now, Vargas would finish the game. His defense helped game him there, especially the fourth-inning double play started by Escobar, who picked Carlos’ Santana’s hard one-hopper.
“The double plays were huge,” Vargas said. “They were the only reason I was able to stay in the game. It really sets the tone when you’re able to put two guys away with one ball in play.”
Vargas struck out three and walked one. His seventh career shutout since 2011 trails only Clayton Kershaw (14) and Adam Wainwright (eight) in baseball. The Royals had their first shutout since Johnny Cueto in 2015.