With one out in the eighth inning of Wednesday’s 1-1 game, the count stood 1-2. The Royals needed a rally spark to salvage a victory in the White Sox series.
The bunt was on, and Nori Aoki said that in three major-league seasons and six in Japan that he never bunted for a hit with two strikes.
The element of surprise worked. White Sox third baseman Conor Gillaspie didn’t have a play, and the Royals were on their way. An Alcides Escobar hustle double, an intentional walk to Eric Hosmer and a sacrifice fly by Billy Butler broke the tie. A walk to Danny Valencia added insurance.
It all started when Aoki gazed to third just before the pitch from Jose Quintana, and saw Gillaspie back.
“I always glance where they’re defending me,” Aoki said through his interpreter Kosuke Injaji.
Practice kicked in. Hitting coach Pedro Grifol had convinced Aoki that he has enough bat control to take a chance on a two-strike bunt, and first-base coach Rusty Kuntz works with Aoki on bunting before batting practice.
“I was pretty nervous,” Aoki said.
The Royals halted one negative trend on Wednesday and didn’t care that they didn’t stop a second.
Entering the series finale against the White Sox, the Royals stood 5-15 against AL Central foes and were 4-11 in one-run games.
Wednesday’s 3-1 victory bit into the division malaise and the Royals loved tacking on an insurance run in a two-run eighth inning.
Maybe the outcome will become a pivot point.
Last season, the Royals went 44-32 in division games. They were 31-25 in one-run games, and the victory total was baseball’s best.
Flip those trends or simply break even, and the Royals would look like a team poised to compete with the division-leading Tigers instead of a team that stands 23-23.
There’s no singular answer. The team’s power outage continues to be a problem. The Royals’ home runs in the first eight games of the home stand were provided by Alex Gordon, when he hit two in Sunday’s victory over the Orioles and one by Lorenzo Cain against the Rockies. The Royals have 20 home runs this season, the lowest total in baseball.
“The inconsistency of the offense to this point sometimes limits you getting that one run you need to tie a game or take a lead,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
A collection of narrow losses can be spirit-breakers. When the Royals spiraled last May, losing 15 of 19 they dropped eight straight one-run games.
When the team caught fire and joined the playoff chase in September, they had a stretch of seven one-run victories in nine games.
There’s a sense the law of averages will catch up for the Royals, that they can’t continue to play this poorly against the Central and in one-run games.
“Our defense has been outstanding, our pitching staff has done pretty well,” said pitcher Danny Duffy. “We just need to keep competing.”
Francisco Peña made his major-league debut on Tuesday a memorable one.
Peña, who had been called up earlier in the day from Class AAA Omaha to serve as a backup to catcher Brett Hayes with regular Salvador Perez nursing a hand injury, entered the game on defense in the ninth inning.
He promptly gunned down Adam Eaton trying to steal second.
“That was very special,” Peña said. “I was able to make a play in a close game.”
It happened with his wife Jessica and 2-year-old son Francisco watching from the stands, and his mother and other family members following the game online from the Dominican Republic.
Peña didn’t play on Wednesday.