Here we are, the final homestand of the season at Kauffman Stadium, and the Royals are still kicking in their quest to chase down their first postseason berth in 28 years.
(Check that: the final homestand of the “regular” season because...well, who knows? It’s not like the Royals need a miracle; just two weeks of good nights and good luck.)
Successive triples by Salvy Perez and Lorenzo Cain ignited a three-run sixth inning Monday night that rewarded another strong outing from James Shields in a 7-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium.
“Yeah, man, we can pull it off,” Shields said. “Absolutely. We’ve just got to keep winning games. We just need to win games right now.
“If we can get this thing real close going into our road trip ... we’ve been real good on the road this year.”
Shields improved to 12-9 by beating the Indians for the second time in six days. He threw 107 pitches in six innings but struck out a season-high 10 and handed a 5-1 lead to the bullpen.
“He always has that off-speed in his back pocket,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “He had a lot of strikeouts some swinging, some looking. That means he’s staying out of the middle.”
Wade Davis worked around a two-out walk in the seventh before the Royals extended their lead on two-out RBI singles later in the inning by Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar.
Even with a six-run lead, Royals manager Ned Yost opted for Luke Hochevar, who has become the bullpen’s top set-up reliever in the eighth inning.
“Look, right now, we’ve got 12-13 games to go,” Yost said. “We’re not taking any chances. We’re going with out best guys and getting after it every single day.”
Hochevar yielded a one-out single in the eighth but otherwise struck out the side. Tim Collins then got two strikeouts in a one-two-three ninth. That meant 17 strikeouts, which set a club record for a nine-inning game.
(The Royals have recorded two previous 17-strikeout games, but both lasted 17 innings: May 2, 1970 vs. the Indians at old Municipal Stadium, and May 25, 1986 vs. the White Sox at then-Royals Stadium.)
“We broke the record, right?” Perez verified. “Good.”
Even better, the victory pulled the Royals, 79-71, to within 2 1/2 games of Texas for the American League’s final wild-card berth — although they need to leap past New York, Baltimore and Cleveland to catch the Rangers.
“We need a (three-game) sweep right here,” Cain said. “That’s what we’re going for. A few guys here and there (are watching the scoreboard), but we’re really focused on beating the Indians right now.
“If we can sweep these guys, it’s going to be huge for us. I think we can get right back in it if we sweep these guys.”
It wasn’t as easy as the final margin suggests.
The Royals were clinging to a 2-1 lead when Perez opened the sixth with a triple into the left-center gap. The play at third was close; and the Royals might have caught a break — the throw appeared to beat Perez.
Whether third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall got the tag down in time wasn’t clear from the replays.
“When I saw the outfielders,” Perez said, “I thought, `OK, maybe I’ve got a chance to make it to third.’ It was bang-bang, but the umpire had good position. He saw (Chisenhall) touched me here (on the arm) after I was in.”
The Indians saw it differently. This much was clear: The game turned.
Cain followed with a drive over the head of center fielder Michael Bourn for another triple, and Cain was clearly safe at third after Bourn’s pop-fly throw back to the infield.
“I’m still trying to get my timing down,” said Cain, who missed nearly a month because of a strained oblique muscle. “I’m struggling with that a little bit, but I was able to have a good at-bat in that at-bat.”
It marked the Royals’ first back-to-back triples since July 17, 2012 against Seattle, when Jarrod Dyson and Alex Gordon did it in the third inning of a 9-6 loss.
Cain’s RBI triple finished Cleveland starter Scott Kazmir.
The switch to Matt Albers brought David Lough into the game as a pinch-hitter for Justin Maxwell, and Lough pulled a first-pitch sinker through the right side of a drawn-in infield for an RBI single and a 4-1 lead.
Albers retired Moustakas on a fly to center, but the Royals caught another break after starting Lough on the first pitch to Escobar, who sent a chopper up the middle.
Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, breaking to second on the possible steal, managed to glove the ball, but his throw pulled Carlos Santana away from first on an error.
After Nick Hagadone replaced Albers, Gordon sent a drive to right that moved the runners to second and third. That turned into another run when Chisenhall booted Emilio Bonifacio’s weak grounder.
“That’s part of what they do that makes them tough to defend,” Francona said. “They can hit the ball out of the ball park, but they can all run. They’re very aggressive.”
The first two runs were charged to Kazmir, who fell to 8-9 after allowing four runs and seven hits in five-plus innings.
“Winning the first game of the series is big,” Shields said. “Obviously, we want to win series, and every game is important. This is what we live for. This is what we play for: September baseball.
“And, hopefully, we get a shot to go to the playoffs.”
The Royals staked Shields to a 2-0 lead by scoring once in the first inning on Billy Butler’s two-out RBI single and again in the third inning on Perez’s two-out RBI single. Perez had three of the Royals’ 14 hits.
Cleveland got its only run on Chisenhall’s leadoff homer in the fifth, but Shields choked off other threats by stranding runners in scoring position in the first, fourth and sixth innings.
Shields roared his way to the dugout after striking out Yan Gomes to end a 31-pitch fourth inning with runners at first and second. He reacted similarly in the sixth when Gomes popped to second with Cabrera on third.
“He knows how to handle his emotions and channel it to his benefit,” Yost said, “but he also knows how to transfer it to his teammates. He knows what’s at stake. He’s getting after it, and he’s into it.”
So are the Royals, who are 36-22 since the All-Star break and on a 15-7 run since Aug. 25.
“Look, man,” Shields said, “we bought into the process after the All-Star break...I think these guys understand now how to win ballgames. I think we’ve proven that in the second half.”