The noise reverberated down the hallways and into the temporary office of Kansas City manager Ned Yost. In the aftermath of a 7-1 victory over Cleveland, one that drew his club ever closer to a champagne celebration this weekend in Chicago, the Royals trained their eyes on a quartet of televisions.
All eyes were locked on Comerica Park, where the Tigers coughed up a three-run lead in the ninth to the White Sox. Each Chicago parry elicited a Kansas City cheer. When Miguel Cabrera smacked a walk-off hit to save Detroit, a collection of forks clattered onto plates of chicken and rice. A few players swore. “That’s not ideal,” one muttered.
As the Royals downed Cleveland on Tuesday, Seattle ace Felix Hernandez imploded in Toronto. Only five games remain in this season. Kansas City (86-71) requires any combination of three victories of their own and Mariners losses to clinch a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 1985. Yet manager Ned Yost shrugged off the approaching finish line.
“Is that the magic number for the wild card?” Yost said. “See, I’m not really interested in the wild card right now. So that number doesn’t really mean much to me. The wild card has always been Plan B. We’re in good shape right now. I’m glad that’s it’s three. But our focus is on winning this division.”
Oakland’s loss to the Angels dropped the A’s into a tie with the Royals for the wild card spots. Detroit still holds a one-game edge down the stretch in the division. Even so, if the Royals reach the playoffs, they displayed on Tuesday why they could be so dangerous. Their core of Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez united at once for the first time in weeks.
Butler scored three times. Hosmer and Gordon each scored twice. Perez broke the game open with a two-run double in the fifth; Gordon added to the breathing room with a two-run double of his own two frames later. “When we’re firing on all cylinders, it’s a tough team to beat,” Hosmer said.
Added Butler, “I think we’re starting to click at the right time.”
The outburst gave Yordano Ventura (14-10, 3.07 ERA) plenty of breathing room. He did not require much. The Indians looked smothered by Ventura’s arsenal across seven scoreless innings. Cleveland could only manage four hits and four walks. Ventura snuffed out any brief opening as he threw a career-high 117 pitches.
He fanned shortstop Jose Ramirez with a changeup to strand the bases loaded in the seventh. It was a typical outcome when trouble approached.
Handling a five-run lead in the fifth, Ventura dealt with what passed for a jam. He gave up a two-out single and then walked former Royal Mike Aviles. Ventura blasted through the trouble as he has so often his year. He dared outfielder Michael Bourn to hit his fastball.
Bourn could only muster a harmless grounder down the first-base line. Hosmer gloved the ball and stepped on the bag. Ventura appeared unperturbed throughout the minicrisis.
“When the team gets the lead and he’s pitching, it even increases his focus,” said Jeremy Guthrie, who translated for Ventura. “He wants to continue to pitch even better, and keep the lead.”
The matchup of starters pitted Ventura against Danny Salazar, a fellow flamethrower from the Dominican Republic. At 24, Salazar is a year older than Ventura. In 2013 he galvanized the Indians on their frantic race to the playoffs. His sophomore campaign has featured more valleys than hills: Salazar received a demotion in May, strained his triceps in the minors and did not rejoin his club until after the All Star break.
But Salazar still wields a devastating arsenal. He overwhelmed his guests early with a fastball that registers in the upper 90s and a changeup that disappears like a splitter. The Royals entered this game ranked last in the majors in strikeouts, with 132 fewer than Oakland, their closest competitor. Salazar struck out six batters in the first two innings.
“Early in the game, that split was as good as I’ve ever seen,” Yost said. “I mean, it was unhittable. It was coming out of his hand like a fastball, and then the bottom would just drop out of it.”
The bite of Salazar’s off-speed pitches forced the Royals to amp up their aggressiveness. Inside the dugout, trading tips of how to handle Salazar, they settled on attacking fastballs. “I thought the second time through, we did a really good job of adjusting to that,” Hosmer said.
After Gordon singled to right, Salazar tested Omar Infante with a fastball. The pitch cut over the inner half of the plate. Infante yanked a double into the left-field corner, well out of reach of MVP candidate Michael Brantley. The Indians did not appear prepared for Infante to drive the ball that deep down the line.
Hosmer and Butler teamed up for another sudden barrage in the next inning. Hosmer bent at the waist and dug out a 3-1 fastball headed for his shins. His two-out double crashed into the right-field wall.
The next pitch was a 95-mph fastball that split the plate. It was the sort of offering Butler could not connect with all season. His swing appeared culled from a career highlight reel. He walloped an opposite-field double to plate Hosmer. Salazar fell behind Gordon, 3-1, before his dugout ordered an intentional walk.
The Indians convened a conference on the mound. Cleveland manager Terry Francona decided to stick with Salazar. The choice backfired. Perez walloped a fastball into the gap left-center gap. Brantley missed with a backhanded stab and fell on the warning track.
Up five runs, the Royals only saw their lead increase. They took one step closer to the playoffs. Butler has spent a decade of his professional life striving for a chance like this. He can sense the finish line. But he refuses to peek at it. Their ultimate goal, winning the division, is still attainable.
“You can’t let yourself see it,” Butler said. “We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We’ve just got to focus on what’s the task for tomorrow.”