The eldest member of the Royals settled into the batter’s box against the youngest member of Oakland’s pitching staff Friday. Raul Ibanez turned his head and trained his eyes on Sonny Gray. In their previous encounter, the 24-year-old Gray overran the 42-year-old Ibanez with fastballs before dusting him off with a change-up.
Their fifth-inning duel was much briefer, and, for the Royals, more explosive. Gray taunted Ibanez with a 93-mph fastball at the belt. Ibanez rifled it over the fence in right-center, a solo home run and the lone bit of scoring achieved in this 1-0 act of thievery by the Royals.
“They’re a great baseball team,” Ibanez said. “And we were able to pull this one out.”
The Royals entered the lair of the best team in baseball, jabbed them in the middle rounds and feinted for the final frames to collect the decision. Jeremy Guthrie, 7-9, expended himself across six innings to mollify the game’s most potent offense. Ducking and weaving with traffic on the bases, he fanned six, as Oakland collected only four hits all evening. Gray matched him for seven innings and punched out seven batters of his own.
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Yet, Gray wavered for that one brief moment — Ibanez’s solo shot — and the Royals’ pitching staff never did likewise. Kelvin Herrera struck out two and stranded a pair of runners in the seventh. Working his third day in a row, Wade Davis bullied the Athletics in the eighth with two strikeouts of his own. Greg Holland wrapped a bow around the package with his 30th save of the season.
“If you get a 1-0 win, you should be very excited,” Guthrie said. “Because it means you pitched well, you played great defense, and you got a big hit from somebody. That guy was Raul tonight.”
The victory was exhausting. Neither Davis nor Holland may be available today. But manager Ned Yost felt he required both to record this victory.
The Athletics flaunted their talent on Friday afternoon. A couple of hours before the game, the team introduced their new ace, Jon Lester, and a familiar face, outfielder Jonny Gomes. Oakland acquired the duo from Boston in exchange for All-Star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. The deal was the first volley in Thursday’s explosive day of deadline deals.
As the sparks flew, the Royals’ front office tilted at windmills, unable to execute any maneuvers. A day later, a few people in the clubhouse grumbled about the team’s lack of financial flexibility, which helped scuttle deals for additions such as Texas outfielder Alex Rios, Philadelphia starting pitcher A.J. Burnett and Phillies outfielder Marlon Byrd.
Instead, the Royals rolled their usual 25-man roster into O.co Coliseum. Actually, only 24 players were available. First baseman Eric Hosmer rested his fractured right hand, bound for a stint on the disabled list that could last as long as six weeks, but remained on the roster for the evening.
As the Royals scraped together a lineup, Oakland displayed its depth. Gray carried a 2.65 ERA to the mound — which was actually the highest of the three starting pitchers slated in the Athletics rotation for the weekend, higher than that of Lester (2.52) and Scott Kazmir (2.37 ERA).
“With the pitching matchups that we’re facing in this series, this was a huge win for us,” Yost said. “This was a huge win for us. Because the pitching we’re going to face in this series is going to be top-notch, every time we go out there.”
Gray left the door open a crack in the first, when Nori Aoki led off with a double and nabbed third on a curve in the dirt. Gray shrugged off the strain.
When thrown properly, his curve disappears from the hitter’s swing plane. Omar Infante struck out on one. Alex Gordon rolled over for the second out. Salvador Perez stared at a 95-mph fastball to end the inning. Just like that, the door slammed.
“All of his stuff is good,” Ibanez said. “His ball sinks. It cuts. He’s got a sharp breaking ball, and a change-up that was moving a lot to lefties today. He had three or four pitches going that were really good.”
Gray jousted with Guthrie, the weak link of the Royals rotation in July. Guthrie lugged to the mound a 10.07 ERA in his previous four starts. He spun three perfect innings, and then faced a fourth-inning jam comparable to the one Gray escaped.
Sam Fuld pestered the Royals for Minnesota earlier this weekend. Dealt to Oakland on Thursday, he filled the same role. He sliced a knee-high change-up into the right-field corner for a leadoff double. Billy Butler ranged to his left to scoop up a grounder by John Jaso for the first out, but Fuld took third.
There he would remain. After issuing a walk to All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson, Guthrie missed the barrel of another All-Star, Brandon Moss, with a cutter. Moss popped out in foul territory. Guthrie fell behind shortstop Jed Lowrie 3-1 but spotted a pair of cutters for strikes to punch him out.
A similar sequence unfolded in the sixth. Fuld coaxed a walk, and Donaldson cracked a single up the middle. With men at the corners, Moss couldn’t pull the trigger on a change-up for strike three. Guthrie again fooled Lowrie with a cutter, never inducing a swing, and jogged off the mound, collecting high fives at the railing.
“Fortunately for us, Raul ran into one,” Yost said. “And that was all we needed. Because our pitching was also top-notch.”