Ready to believe yet?
It’s not just that Bruce Chen not only turned in a magnificent performance Thursday when the Royals opened what amounts to a four-game weekend measurement against Boston with a 5-1 victory at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals also pinned a loss on a long-time nemesis in Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, who had a 1.64 ERA and a no-hitter against them on his career resume.
“In the past,” designated hitter Billy Butler said, “we haven’t fared too well off of him, but we’ve been saying it here, we’re a different team now.”
It’s not as if Lester, 10-7, pitched poorly, either. He went into lockdown mode after a tainted three-run first inning, which included just one earned run, by yielding just four hits in his seven innings.
Chen, 5-0, was simply better. He nursed that three-run lead into the eighth inning before exiting with two on and two outs. Luke Hochevar got the final out before losing the shutout in the ninth.
“They’re the best team in the American League, record-wise,” Chen said, “and I wanted to go out there and give this team a chance to win. We started (this series) on the right foot. We won the first game.
“Now, we have our three best pitchers coming up — (Ervin) Santana, (Jeremy) Guthrie and (James) Shields. I think we’ve put ourselves in a good position so we can keep winning ballgames.”
The Royals, 59-53, won for the 16th time in 20 games since the All-Star break but remained 81/2 games behind first-place Detroit in the American League Central Division.
The wild-card news is more encouraging: The Royals are just 41/2 games out of a postseason berth with 50 games to go. Ready to dream? Right now, after a night when Chen outduels Lester, anything seems possible.
“That’s a great team over there,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said, “but we’re a good team over here, too.”
Lester, 10-7, gave up three runs and four hits in seven innings, but the Royals pushed their lead to 4-0 on Rubby De La Rosa’s first pitch in the eighth when Butler pumped a 413-foot drive over the center-field wall.
Justin Maxwell added a two-out homer for the Royals’ final run.
The Red Sox avoided a shutout by scoring once in the ninth against Hochevar. Jonny Gomes pumped a one-out double to center and scored on Stephen Drew’s single to left.
Hochevar then closed out the victory, and got his second save, by getting Mike Napoli to ground into a double play. That was all epilogue, though. This night was all about Chen.
“I guess it’s not how you throw, but where you throw it,” Boston left fielder Jonny Gomes said. “He worked both sides of the plate, got ahead, got in on our hands and then went away.
“He throws three pitches with 6-mph difference. He throws a fastball 83, throws a fastball 88, curveball at 74, curveball at 79. He just stayed on the edges.”
Chen had just two strikeouts but limited Boston to five singles in 72/3 shutout innings, which lowered his ERA to 1.79. He has allowed just four earned runs in 312/3 innings over five starts since rejoining the rotation.
“Phenomenal job,” manager Ned Yost said. “Really an outstanding job of pitching. ... Anytime you see a lot of pop-ups, a lot of out-front swings, Bruce is on his game. And he got an awful lot of them tonight.”
When Chen went out for the eighth inning at 94 pitches, the Royals had Tim Collins and Hochevar both up and warming in the bullpen.
Daniel Nava led off with a single to center, but Chen retired Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a fly to center and Brock Holt on a fly to left before Jacoby Ellsbury flicked a single to left.
That was it.
“I wasn’t going to let the tying run come to the plate and Bruce face it,” Yost said. “And I made my mind up early in the game that I wasn’t going to let Bruce face that lineup the fourth time around.”
Chen had no argument.
“I felt good,” he said, “but we have what I consider the best bullpen in the American League. You go out there, you do you job, and you give it to the bullpen.”
The Royals provided Chen with an early cushion by scoring three times in the first inning after Lorenzo Cain led off with a double into the left-field corner and went to third on Eric Hosmer’s grounder to first.
After Butler walked, Alex Gordon sent a full-count fastball to left.
Gomes tracked the ball and positioned himself for a throw to the plate — but lost his footing. He made a desperation dive by could only trap the ball. Cain scored on what was scored as a sacrifice fly and and error.
“The ball was a perfect elevation to get behind it with a runner on third and less than two (outs),” Gomes said, “so I got behind it, and then my plant leg just slipped.”
Lester retired Miguel Tejada on a pop to second but loaded the bases on a four-pitch walk to Maxwell before Moustakas yanked a two-run single to right for a 3-0 lead.
That’s right, Moustakas against a tough lefty. Does that happen two months ago when he’s struggling?
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I just know the work that me and Pedro (Grifol) and George (Brett), when he was here, put in. ... I feel a lot more comfortable at the plate. I feel a lot better against a guy like Lester now.”
That’s a guy who believes. Who else?