Before he touched first base, before he made a triumphant trot around the diamond in a 6-2 Royals victory, Lorenzo Cain allowed himself an indulgence. He peeked into the dugout. His teammates wore hoodies over their torsos and expressions of exaltation across their faces.
In the third inning Wednesday night, as the Royals salvaged a series victory over Chicago and set the stage for a three-game collision with Detroit, Cain made White Sox ace Chris Sale resemble a mortal.
“For him to leave one up, that’s not him,” Cain said. “I’m glad he did tonight.”
Cain launched a three-run homer, Nori Aoki set a club record as he extended his torrid string of hitting and Alcides Escobar smacked a homer of his own to continue his mastery of Sale as the offense carried the day. Backed by the barrage, Yordano Ventura authored one of his finest outings as a Royal. Gone were the lapses in command and concentration. He steeled himself through a third-inning, bases-loaded jam, struck out seven and held Chicago to one run across seven innings.
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The result set the stage for the clash with the Tigers on Friday. Kansas City (83-68) can reclaim the division lead with two wins. They also require as many victories as possible if they hope to hold off Seattle in the quest for the second wild card. To maintain their advantage on Wednesday, the Royals required an offensive effort that was unexpected but appreciated.
Sale entered this game with one run allowed in 15 innings against the Royals this season. His opponents ignored the history. They dinged him for a season-high five earned runs on nine hits, the second-highest number of knocks he has allowed in 2014.
“You go into that game knowing that if you’re going to get him, you better get him early,” manager Ned Yost said.
Cain did not do the impossible. Sale had given up 11 home runs this season. But what Cain accomplished was improbable. Never before, in his 164 games in the majors, had Sale yielded a homer on an 0-2 pitch. Cain jumped on a hanging slider and lofted it over the left-field fence. The blast electrified a ballpark begging for release.
“We did a great job swinging the bats tonight,” Cain said. “Facing Detroit here soon, the confidence should be high.”
The week at home was not kind to the Royals. They lost their lead in the American League Central. The lowly Red Sox nipped them three times in four games. Yost saw a pair of diametrically opposed bullpen strategies backfire: Aaron Crow served up a grand slam to cost the team a game on Sunday. Two days last, chastened by the experience, Yost watched in disbelief as Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis each allowed runs for the first time since June.
Now they had to face one of the finest pitchers in the game. Sale resembles a string bean. He strikes opposing batters like a serpent, a 180-pound whirl of lanky limbs and devastating deception. “That guy’s unbelievable,” said Escobar, who has 18 hits off Sale, more than any other player in the majors. “Wow. Everything is moving.”
He may be the hardest starting pitcher in the majors to sting for a hit: He entered Wednesday giving up 6.4 hits per nine innings, the lowest mark among American League starters. He also led the American League in starter ERA (1.99) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.6).
He squared off with a fading offense, which had averaged 3.3 runs per game in September. The specter of the incoming ace caused Yost to crack wise.
“He throws a lot of strikes, and that’s good for us,” Yost said before the game. “Because we swing at a lot of balls. The more strikes somebody throws us, it could play into our advantage.”
Escobar ignited the third inning by ripping a changeup into left field. Up next was Aoki, who has become this offense’s unlikely catalyst. Over these past three games, he notched 11 hits, a collection of check-swing singles, bleeders and bloopers, and the most ever compiled in a three-game series in franchise history.
“He’s hotter than a firecracker,” Yost said.
Aoki’s 10th hit in that array was a grounder that bounced over the third baseman’s head to put two on for Cain. He inherited the No. 3 spot in the batting order earlier this week. He earned the position thanks to his legs, not his lumber. Yost sought speed, and Cain offered that quality. His strength lies dormant in his slender frame, capable of being unleashed at certain moments.
The moment arrived in the third. Sale pumped a fastball over the middle for strike one, and Cain fouled back a similar offering. Next came a slider, 81 mph and fat over the plate. Cain belted it and took a joyous journey around the bases.
“It was one of those hangers,” Cain said. “He left it up. He definitely missed his spot.”
A little defensive incompetence aided the Royals later in the frame. After Josh Willingham walked, Salvador Perez skied a pop-up into right-center field. The ball triangulated center fielder Adam Eaton, right fielder Avisail Garcia and second baseman Marcus Semien. All three came up empty.
It was a gift of a hit, and what followed was an added bonus. Willingham chugged all the way from first. A throw from Eaton drew catcher Tyler Flowers up the third-base line. Willingham tested his sore groin muscle by tangoing away from Flowers’ outstretched glove for Kansas City’s fourth run.
If that tally involved finesse, their fifth run required only brute force. Escobar supplied it. Earlier in the day, he could not pinpoint a reason for his dominance of Sale. The ace did not make him uncomfortable at the plate.
“Every hitter has like one pitcher in the major leagues where you see the ball really good,” Escobar said.
In the bottom of the fourth, Sale fed Escobar a 2-2 fastball. It registered at only 93 mph. It exited the park at a faster clip, and cleared the left-field fence for only his third homer this season. The outburst sparked a party that lasted all evening and into the clubhouse afterward.
The scene was common but still energetic. A smoke machine fogged the room. The music rumbled. Cain stood at his locker, with shaving cream caked on the side of his face. The showdown with Detroit was a day away.
“We’re definitely ready to go,” Cain said. “We’re going to get our minds ready to go, get focused and go out and try to win some ballgames.”