Salvador Perez wagged his tongue as he bounded up a flight of steps away from the scene of his heroics. The door to the visitors’ clubhouse at Tropicana Field slammed behind him. The concrete walls could not muffle the resulting roars from his teammates.
A ninth-inning bolt of lightning, a homer worth three runs, ignited the celebration.
On Wednesday evening, Perez resuscitated the Royals with one swing in a 5-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. His blast allowed the team to exit this park with a winning record on a nine-game road trip, created some momentum for an upcoming series against Detroit, and reminded everyone why the club’s catcher is an All-Star.
“That’s a pretty good win for the team,” Perez said after his 11th homer of the season.
For the first three hours, the game was close to torture. The Royals, 47-43, were two for 11 with runners in scoring position, frittering away chance after chance. Save for a solo homer by Eric Hosmer and a productive ground-out by Raul Ibanez, they only came up empty.
Royals starter Yordano Ventura lost the handle on his delivery, and yielded a grand slam to fellow rookie Kevin Kiermaier in the fourth. The Royals trailed by two from there.
“We had so many opportunities,” manager Ned Yost said. “The whole game I’m thinking ‘Somebody, just please get a big hit with runners in scoring position!’ ”
He had to wait until the ninth for his wish to be granted.
Jarrod Dyson ripped a single against Joel Peralta. Dyson stole second. Then he stole third. Two batters later, Hosmer walked.
The table was set for Perez. His bat had cooled on the latter half of this road trip, but he felt ready for the moment. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon inserted rookie Kirby Yates to clean up Peralta’s mess.
Perez appeared ready for damage. Yates threw a high fastball, and Perez swung out of his cleats.
Dyson turned to third-base coach Mike Jirschele. “Heads up,” he said. “He looks like he’s trying to turn on something.”
Yates opted for another fastball as a follow-up. This one was 91 mph and a tad lower in the zone. Perez saw a sinker with little depth, a pitch worthy of punishment, and took a rip. His follow-through carried him into the other batter’s box.
Perez only moved a few steps. As the ball arced toward the pole, he thought it would hook foul. At first base, Hosmer wondered the same thing.
“I didn’t realize how good he hit it,” he said, until he saw Brandon Guyer leap at the wall 315 feet away.
The ball crashed on a landing a few feet out of Guyer’s reach. The Royals’ dugout erupted. Perez could not contain himself.
As he rounded the bases, he assaulted first-base coach Rusty Kuntz with a high five. Earlier in the year, Perez fractured Kuntz’s left wrist during batting practice. Now, Kuntz joked his right shoulder was separated — the force of Perez’s blow caused his arm to rotate 360 degrees.
“My God!” Kuntz said.
Perez kept running. He pointed to his dugout near third base. He clapped his hands and pumped his fists.
At 24, he has become one of this club’s most vital players, perhaps the finest catcher in the American League. He will start for the junior circuit in the All-Star Game next week.On Wednesday, he reminded everyone why.
“He hit it in the exact perfect spot,” Yost said. “That was huge for us right there.”