His hair was slicked back, and the right side of his jersey was soaked. Royals manager Ned Yost looked unkempt despite his afternoon off, following an ejection in the first inning of a 6-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox.
After each victory, the team designates a player of the game. On Sunday, following their seventh win in a row, they settled on their manager-turned-spectator. The players doused him with water – they insisted they would not waste beer for such a celebration — as the stereo system’s bass pulsed and a strobe light flashed through the room.
“Since he didn’t make it through an inning, we figured it was his day to get the award,” designated hitter Billy Butler said.
The last time Yost watched his team on TV, after an ejection against the Houston Astros on May 27, the sight infuriated him. He fumed at the shoddy at-bats, and criticized his club to reporters afterward. That was three weeks and 12 wins ago —another lifetime for a team that has surged to a season’s best four games above .500.
For Yost, glued to a TV inside the visiting manager’s office, the product on Sunday was far more pleasing. He departed after arguing a run-scoring balk ruling against James Shields. Though Shields labored, he survived a 10-hit barrage to achieve a quality start, three runs allowed in six innings. Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez launched early home runs to pace the offense, and Jarrod Dyson padded the lead with fourth-inning RBI single.
In all, the Royals (36-32) outscored their hosts, 22-6, in 27 innings at U.S. Cellular Field. Shields painted this as the team’s best of the season, one in which all cylinders clicked. They are roaring into a four-game set with Detroit, the leaders of the American League Central, “the biggest series of the year,” Butler said.
A three-game destruction of a divisional opponent allowed the Royals to puff out their chests, ever so slightly, on Sunday afternoon. All cautioned about the length of season remaining, and the perils of placing too much emphasis on one series. But the importance of this week is obvious, with the Royals merely a game and a half out of first place.
“Obviously, we’re the hotter team coming in,” Butler said. “One of the hottest teams in baseball, if not the hottest. We’ve got to keep that rolling.”
“We need to have this same swagger going into Detroit,” Hosmer said. “If we make a statement like we did here, that’s big.”
“We’re in the best position to go on in there that we could be in,” Yost said. “And we’ll just take it from there.”
Yost handed the controls to bench coach Don Wakamatsu two batters into the bottom of the first. The sequence was eventful: Shields yielded a leadoff triple to fleet-footed outfielder Adam Eaton. Shields already had a two-run lead thanks to Hosmer’s homer, but he possesses one of the best pickoff moves in baseball, a weapon capable of defusing the threat.
On his second attempt, Shields thought he nabbed his man. He stared down Eaton, watched him stutter-step away from the bag, looked toward home and fired back to third base. Mike Moustakas placed a tag on Eaton.
“I thought it was a really good move,” Shields said. “I think if a lefty throws it, and they’re used to it, I don’t think they call that play. I don’t think it was a balk."
From behind the plate, crew chief Paul Emmel disagreed. He ruled Shields “stepped toward home plate" before the pickoff, Yost explained later.
Convinced this wasn’t the case, Shields attempted to engage with Emmel. As Shields recounted the story later, he asked Emmel for an explanation for the call. Emmel instructed him not to argue. Shields insisted he wasn’t arguing. “And then he told me not to talk to him,” Shields said.
At this point, Shields’ manager arrived. Yost stalked from his perch to protest. His initial discussion with Emmel appeared cordial, though it took a similar vein: Yost asked for an explanation, he said, and Emmel told him not to argue. After a few moments, Yost clapped his hands and headed back to his dugout. As he departed, he turned back and spat “Get the call right,” with an expletive sprinkled in.
The reaction was immediate. Emmel flicked his right hand, and only then did Yost reveal his anger. He screamed in Emmel’s face as Shields steadied himself on the mound. His day would not get much easier.
“They hit the mistakes that I made,” he said. “They also got hits on a lot of balls that they were kind of check-swinging on, as well.”
The biggest scare arose in the third. Shields was protecting a four-run lead after Perez’s three-run jack off starter Andre Rienzo. Shields yielded a two-out double to Gordon Beckham and a walk to Conor Gillaspie. Up came Jose Abreu, the rookie phenom with 19 homers thus far. When Abreu unloaded on a thigh-high fastball, No. 20 appeared within reach.
“I thought it was over the ivy” in center field, Shields said. “I thought it was gone.”
From his spot inside the clubhouse, so did Yost. Both were wrong. The ball died at the warning track. Dyson settled beneath it. Shields waited by the dugout steps to salute Dyson as the Royals exited the field.
The offense stayed quiet, for the most part, for the game’s duration. In the eighth and again in the ninth, Wade Davis and Greg Holland each allowed the tying run to reach the plate. Yet the outcome would not change.
Inside the Royals clubhouse, their post-game playlist boomed through the speakers and the players prepared for the challenge ahead. They delivered a statement here this past week. They can deliver a bigger one in Detroit.
“To knock off the top dog, you’ve got to beat them,” Butler said.