The inspiration struck manager Ned Yost as he watched Salvador Perez flail yet again at a pitch outside the strike zone.
In the ninth inning of a 4-2 loss on Tuesday, with two on, one out and the outcome far from assured, the Royals had backed Tigers closer Joe Nathan into a corner, desperate to maintain their hold on the American League Central.
Standing in the on-deck circle was Eric Hosmer. Together Perez and Hosmer form part of this organization’s foundation, a pair of homegrown products thought capable of carrying an offense into a glittering future. Neither has met expectations this season, with too many at-bats frittered away. Just four innings earlier, the duo combined to leave the bases loaded.
So rather than allow Perez and Hosmer to attempt to plate the runs with their power, Yost felt compelled to act. He had already inserted rookie speedster Terrance Gore as a pinch-runner at first. Now he turned to Jarrod Dyson, the club’s premier weapon on the bases. Yost did not need to give Dyson any specific instructions as he trotted to second base. “Everybody in the ballpark,” Yost said, “knows that they’re running.”
The list of aware parties included Nathan and second baseman Ian Kinsler. Nathan attempted to upset Dyson’s timing. Kinsler stood atop the bag. Nathan raised his right leg and turned toward the plate. In this moment, Dyson explained later, he “lost focus” and broke for third.
“I was put in to do a job,” Dyson said. “I didn’t get it done.”
A disaster unfolded. Nathan had fooled him. Dyson fell into the dirt as Kinsler caught the ball. Two pitches — and two Perez swings — later, the game was over. The rally did not fizzle. It exploded in delightful fashion for the 32,603 fans at Comerica Park — and in agonizing fashion for Royals fans aching for the first playoff appearance in a generation, now forced to watch their team (79-64) share ownership of the division lead.
“We’re still confident,” Hosmer said. “We can’t fold. We’ve come too far to fold, at this point. We control our destiny tomorrow. It’s too late in the season to lose confidence now. We’ve come too far.”
Dyson apologized for his mistake. Yost defended his decision. He insisted it did not reflect a lack of assurance in Perez and Hosmer.
“You’ve got two weapons like Gore and Dyson, they steal a base, all of a sudden, it takes a single instead of a home run or a double to score those guys,” Yost said. He added, “My confidence level in those guys is great. I’ve got all the confidence in the world in those guys right there.”
The wobbly Royals’ reign led to this moment, to a three-night test inside the lair of their division’s defending champions. The Tigers do not traffic in finesse. Their pitchers miss bats. Their batters clear fences. They have demonstrated a mastery of Kansas City this season, with 11 victories in 15 games, a wide enough margin to paper over deficiencies in the bullpen and a slew of injuries.
“We haven’t played our best ball against them,” Royals starter Jason Vargas said. “We rattled off a good series here earlier in the year. We need to put some better ballgames together against them. Put some more crisp ballgames together.”
The season’s marathon has winnowed into a sprint. From here to October, only 19 games remain for Kansas City, one of them a rain-suspended, impending loss hanging over this club’s head. The Royals have to tiptoe across a tightrope to reach the playoffs, without possession of the muscle necessary to compensate for mistakes.
To get to the promised land, the defense cannot botch routine plays, as they did in Monday’s thrashing. The hitters cannot squander chances, as they did against Tigers star Max Scherzer on Tuesday. The pitchers cannot allow the baseball to fly out of the park — if only because their teammates are unable to do the same. Vargas learned that lesson, giving up a pair of deflating homers in 51/3 innings of four-run work Tuesday.
Against Scherzer, runs come at a premium. He will contend for another American League Cy Young Award this fall. His game is complete: He can paint the corners with his fastball, devastate with his slider, discombobulate with his changeup and stall the running tactics of those lucky enough to reach base against him.
“I thought he was tough as usual,” Yost said.
Kansas City came up empty on a pair of early chances: Two walks in the first inning and a pair of singles in the second led nowhere. Where the Royals faltered, the Tigers pounced. J.D. Martinez plated a run with a sacrifice fly in the first. Rajai Davis belted a two-run homer in the third. Martinez swatted his 20th homer of the season, more than any Royal, in the fifth.
The fifth exposed the differences between the two clubs. The Royals opened a window after singles by Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki. Omar Infante deposited an RBI single up the middle for their first run.
Up to the plate came Alex Gordon. During the past few weeks at Kauffman Stadium, he electrified the crowd with a series of game-changing homers. He hushed Comerica Park with a deep drive off a hanging curveball. The ball soared toward the right-field pole and hooked foul.
The fans exhaled. So did Scherzer. Yost asked the umpires to review the play (the television replay appeared to confirm the call on the field). “They got together, and all four of them said that in their opinion that it was obviously foul,” Yost said.
The at-bat resumed and Scherzer showed little interest in testing Gordon. He flipped three pitches outside the zone to shuttle him to first. The bases were now loaded for Perez and Hosmer. Neither would shine.
Perez offered at all three pitches he saw. The last two were changeups outside the strike zone. He lined out to end his moment. Hosmer failed to even put the ball in play. Scherzer upset his timing with a pair of fouled-off changeups, and blew him away with a 97-mph fastball wide of the zone.
“He’s a different animal when he gets guys on base,” Hosmer said. “He really bears down. Every pitch he throws you is a wipeout pitch.”
The team picked up a run in the eighth. A pair of infield singles from Aoki and Infante staggered Nathan to start the ninth. Gordon worked the count full, but struck out on a slider. Perez stepped into the batter’s box.
Nathan has struggled in his first year as a Tiger. The Detroit crowds have jeered him. A few weeks ago he apologized for making an obscene gesture toward them. The fans were about to shower him with cheers. Nathan flipped a slider to Perez. The pitch was well off the plate. Perez swung anyway.
At that point, Yost turned into his dugout and called upon Dyson. He headed toward second base with the count at 0-1. Nathan did not need to throw another pitch to record the inning’s second out.
“Every time in, I’m looking to steal,” Dyson said. “I just didn’t get the job done. There’s no excuse for it.”