Lorenzo Cain leaned back in his chair as his teammates packed up. At his feet lay a duffel bag stuffed to the brim with cleats and sanitary socks and the rest of his equipment. As the Royals prepared for a weeklong trip that could stretch into nearly a fortnight, Cain did not sound prepared for their season to end anytime soon.
“I’m taking like 15 shirts,” Cain said, and erupted with laughter. The song on the clubhouse speaker system changed, and Cain launched into an unsteady rendition of R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix).” He was not the only player crooning.
A festive atmosphere filled the Kansas City clubhouse after a 5-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers in the regular-season finale at Kauffman Stadium. A gaggle of rookies frolicked in cheerleader’s crop-tops, the designated outfit for the traditional dress-up rituals on the season’s final road trip. Dozens of television cameras bumped into one another crowding the players. It was an unfamiliar sight at this time of year for a club so accustomed to empty Octobers.
On Sunday, the Royals (84-70) played before a sold-out crowd, the final addition to the 1,956,482 fans who packed this ballpark all season. It was the largest total turnout since 1991. In the finale, the audience saw a cornered team push back, at last, against Detroit, and keep alive the hope for the first playoff game hosted in Kansas City since 1985.
“No one’s packed up their stuff,” Hosmer said. “Everyone plans on being back here. No matter if we start the playoffs on the road, or not. We think this place will be pretty cool in October. We’re all dying to see it.”
The Royals grabbed an early advantage with a pair of runs in the first two frames. A two-run triple by Nori Aoki snapped a fourth-inning deadlock. Jeremy Guthrie dodged and darted through 51/3 innings of two-run baseball. Alex Gordon contributed an RBI double in the seventh to release some tension.
With the victory, the Royals shaved Detroit’s lead in the American League Central to 11/2 games. After dropping two of three this weekend, winning the division still appears unlikely, but the Royals need all the victories they can cobble together to hold on to a spot in the wild-card game.
A shade of uncertainty tinged the day. After the final seven regular-season games this week, they could travel to Seattle or Oakland or Baltimore or Anaheim.
Or they could fly home to host a play-in game. Or they could fly home to host a wild-card game. Or they could fly home, clean out their lockers and depart for a winter of upheaval.
“We don’t worry about that,” manager Ned Yost said. “I think today’s game showed that we’re not going away.”
Kansas City ended the day with essentially a one-game lead over the Seattle Mariners for the second wild-card spot, barring a miraculous result in the resumption of a suspended game on Monday in Cleveland. Avoiding a sweep on Sunday aided their hopes of prolonging the season.
“We definitely needed this win today,” Cain said. “That was huge. That was bigger than people know. Detroit came in, and let’s be honest, they embarrassed us.”
The crowd recognized Sunday’s significance. The stands filled well before the first pitch at 1:10 p.m. Eighteen minutes later, they rose in unison to recognize this organization’s longest tenured player, and one of their most maligned.
Billy Butler can become a free agent after this season, as the Royals are all but assured of declining his $12.5 million team option. He entered the game with two hits in the month. The day before, when Yost chose Raul Ibanez over Butler as a ninth-inning pinch hitter, he said he sought a “professional at-bat.”
A day later, Yost clarified the phrase as a term of endearment for Ibanez, a 42-year-old veteran with experience in those spots (and a .167 batting average in 2014). Yost insisted did not intend to insult Butler, and stressed “people that think I’m slighting Billy, they’re off base.”
“Billy’s in a funk right now,” Yost continued. “And Billy has no idea what he’s doing wrong.”
And yet Butler started on Sunday. Yost desired offense, and he could not allow Josh Willingham to replicate his hitless, three-strikeout performance from Saturday. Butler did not have to wait long for an opportunity.
Cain smacked a two-out single off Tigers starter Rick Porcello in the first. Hosmer did the same. Porcello tested Butler with a 93-mph fastball on the inner half, the sort of heater that has tied up Butler all season long. This time, he smoked an RBI single into center field. Kauffman Stadium showered him with a standing ovation. After the game, Yost vowed to utilize Butler daily down the stretch.
“I’ve basically played every day my whole career,” Butler said. “So I’ll be ready.”
His teammates pecked Porcello for a second run in the next inning. After Omar Infante singled, the team’s new leadoff hitter stepped up. Alcides Escobar entered the game hitting .379 in his first seven days in the new role, roped a hit in the first and then launched an RBI double to left in the second.
Detroit flashed their might in the third. They required one swing to halve Kansas City’s advantage. Ian Kinsler powered a wan changeup out to left for a solo shot.
For a club built on brute strength — pitchers who amass strikeouts and hitters who mash homers — the Tigers also capitalize on mistakes. Mike Moustakas committed an egregious one in the fourth. With one out and runners at the corners, shortstop Andrew Romine flied out to shallow left field — and somehow brought a run home.
When Alex Gordon caught the baseball, J.D. Martinez feigned a run toward home. He stopped as the ball sailed toward the diamond. Moustakas glanced at catcher Bryan Holaday, the trail runner, who was moving toward second base. The momentary lapse cost Kansas City. Moustakas dropped the throw and Martinez raced home. “It’s something that can’t happen,” Moustakas said.
Moustakas benefited from a quick chance to compensate for his error. He looped a single for the team’s second hit in the bottom of the inning. After Escobar popped up a bunt into Porcello’s glove, Aoki had a chance to swing.
He showed why his bunts the day before were so misguided. Aoki slashed a two-run triple past first baseman Victor Martinez to grant Guthrie another lead.
“You can make errors, because errors are going to happen,” Yost said. “But when you do make errors, as an offense, you’ve got to come in and cover it. And we did.”
Yost also showed some dexterity of his own. A week ago, Yost inspired scorn and derision when he allowed a lesser reliever to give up a grand slam because “Aaron Crow’s inning is the sixth inning.” This time, Yost turned to Kelvin Herrera in the sixth after Guthrie allowed a pair of singles.
Herrera buzzed through the sixth and the seventh. In the eighth, Wade Davis struck out a pair to tie the franchise record for strikeouts by a reliever in a season with 103. In the ninth, Greg Holland locked up just his third save this month.
The late-game trio fortified the club during the long summer. The Royals hope to repeat this sequence during the final seven regular-season games and beyond.
“You’ve got to win all of them, man,” Hosmer said. “This is playoff baseball right now. We’re right in the middle of things. Every win is crucial.”