Dayton Moore thrust his hands into the pockets of his blazer and leaned back against a clubhouse wall. The Royals transported a significant portion of their front-office brain trust to Yankee Stadium last week for organizational meetings. The group often holds these discussions about staffing and scheduling in October, but they moved them up on the calendar this season. They intend to be otherwise occupied next month.
Moore, the team’s general manager, and his cohorts witnessed the latest in a steady string of seemingly improbable victories in this push for the playoffs. With a 2-0 win over the New York Yankees, the Royals survived yet another day of offensive slumber, spoiled a celebration and set the stage for a three-game showdown in Detroit the next three days.
“Our guys play hard,” Moore said. “We’ve just got to keep going, just keep playing. Just got to keep trying to figure out ways to win.”
Here in the Bronx, Kansas City (79-62) fashioned a series victory out of its dependable starting rotation, its suffocating bullpen and a trio of unearned runs. The first run was enough to deliver a win Friday. The last two scores occurred Sunday as the club spoiled the Yankees’ day of celebration for retiring shortstop Derek Jeter. When Kelvin Herrera forced Jeter to ground out in the eighth inning, thousands of fans streamed for the exits. Those who remained eventually watched Wade Davis fire a 98-mph fastball past Stephen Drew for the game’s final out.
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As the Royals packed their bags for Comerica Park, they understood they held at least a two-game advantage over the Tigers in the American League Central heading into Monday’s series opener in Detroit. The Tigers played the San Francisco Giants on Sunday night. For the first time this season, the Royals will open a series with the Tigers while leading the division.
“This is what it’s all about,” reliever Aaron Crow said. “We’ve got to take care of business there. It’s going to be a tough series. We know that. If we take care of business, then we’re looking pretty good. And if we don’t, we’ll be chasing them.”
Kansas City captured first place on Aug. 11. The Royals have held at least a share of it ever since despite a cratering, inconsistent offense. The hitters failed to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s appealing right-field porch this weekend. Then again, their pitchers prevented the so-called Bronx Bombers from doing the same.
Yordano Ventura (12-9, 3.25 ERA) issued four walks but confined the Yankees to three hits over six innings. Working without All-Star closer Greg Holland, who was resting his tight right triceps muscle, Yost called upon Aaron Crow to get out of a seventh-inning jam. Crow responded by inducing a double-play ball from Chase Headley and immobilized Ichiro Suzuki with a wicked, front-hip sinker. Given his team’s dominant pitching staff, the lack of slugging failed to dent Yost’s confident façade.
“A ‘W’ is a ‘W,’” Yost said. “I’m on top of the world.”
The Royals were bystanders to history on Sunday. A cavalcade of pinstriped luminaries visited the ballpark to pay tribute to Jeter, as did a trio of his idols, Cal Ripken Jr., Dave Winfield and Michael Jordan. The presence of Jordan caused Alex Gordon to sprout goosebumps.
The Royals assembled en masse for the ceremony and stood and watched at the dugout railing. They snapped pictures and shot video with their phones. After Jeter delivered a short speech to the crowd, the Royals bounded onto the field to join in the standing ovation. When Jeter stepped to the plate in the first inning, Jeremy Guthrie gathered his teammates to tip their caps in unison.
The afternoon returned to normal, and so did the Kansas City lineup. The offense had managed 31 runs in their previous 12 games. They scored two runs or fewer in eight of those. At times, they have relied on the gaffes of their opponents. The Yankees provided a number of those Sunday.
A second-inning run stemmed from a swinging bunt by Josh Willingham, an opposite-field single by Mike Moustakas and a nubber down the first-base line by Nori Aoki. Yankees starter Shane Greene scooped Aoki’s grounder but spiked a throw wide of first base to let Willingham score.
Kansas City received a similar series of gifts in the third. Gordon looped a 94-mph fastball into right field. Breaking toward the diamond was Carlos Beltran. He flubbed the catch. Gordon stole second with Eric Hosmer at the plate.
Hosmer sliced a 1-1 slider into right field. Gordon hustled homeward, only to stumble as he rounded third. The throw from Beltran drew catcher Brian McCann into the right side of the batter’s box. He never turned around to see Gordon belatedly breeze across the plate. McCann opted to nab Hosmer in a run-down, which collected an out but gave the Royals another unearned run.
“I think he saw my jump from second, and assumed I was scoring no matter what,” Gordon said.
The lead then belonged to Ventura, the 23-year-old rookie. He has performed like an effective enigma in the second half, averaging four walks per game in his last four starts, while still pitching to a 2.88 ERA. He flashed his inconsistency in the third, when Jeter and Beltran both coaxed free passes.
The tight strike zone of umpire Chris Segal may have aided the hitters. But Ventura still had fallen into a jam.
“He said his big focus was to try to get ahead for first-pitch strikes,” said Jeremy Guthrie, who translates for Ventura. “Obviously he wasn’t able to do that consistently. But the biggest thing was to try to come back in the count and make good pitches after the walks.”
Ventura possesses the weapons necessary to stabilize these situations. With two on and two out, McCann came to the plate. He nearly redeemed himself for his mistake in the field when he turned on a low changeup. The baseball soared toward the right-field pole and hooked foul. Two pitches later, McCann managed only a feeble flyout to center.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen a pitcher like that, with that kind of stuff,” Beltran said.
The Yankees never threatened again. They could not advance a runner to second base until the ninth inning. By then, Davis stood atop the mound. The Yankees stood little chance.
Inside the clubhouse afterward, the Royals packed for Comerica Park. They watched the San Francisco 49ers wallop the Dallas Cowboys on a clubhouse television. They looked like a first-place team. An unconventional one, for sure, but still a group in control of its own destiny. A showdown in Motown awaited.
“We’re playing great baseball,” Yost said. “We’re pitching, we’re playing defense and we’re scoring runs to win ball games. That’s all that matters.”