For two hours, 16 minutes and 23 outs, James Shields silenced this riotous multisport relic. The fans at O.co Coliseum had not witnessed the Oakland Athletics lose a series here since May. With two outs in the eighth inning on Sunday, the flag-waving, drum-thumping masses here sensed their last, best chance to avoid that fate.
The second solo home run of the day by Oakland outfielder Josh Reddick had halved the Royals lead. A subsequent single delivered the tying run to the plate in the form of Alberto Callapso. Shields allowed the tumult to last four pitches, long enough for chants to echo through East Bay, before grounding Callaspo out with a cutter.
The volume plummeted, never rising that high again in a 4-2 Royals victory, muted by a tenacious effort from the leader of Kansas City’s rotation, who logged eight innings for just the second time this season. Shields (10-6, 3.43 ERA) walked off the mound conversing with replacement first baseman Billy Butler. He showed no joy until catcher Salvador Perez lumbered over, clapping his hands, embracing his teammate and reminding of the moment’s gravity: The Royals were about to claim a series victory over the best team in baseball.
“As far as I’m concerned, we can match up with anyone,” Shields said. “Any team. Any starting rotation. I don’t care who it is.”
For three days here, the Royals (57-53) displayed their merits as they pulled within 11/2 games of the Toronto Blue Jays for the American League’s second wild card. Since a three-game sweep in Boston to start the second half, Kansas City has won four consecutive series. Save for one horrific sequence on Saturday, the club benefited from bursts of timely hitting, played tidy defense and blanked their opponents.
The Royals tussled with baseball’s most prolific offense for 27 innings this weekend. Oakland scored in just three of the innings. The only Athletic Shields couldn’t handle was Reddick, who bombed a pair of homers. The Royals lineup clapped 14 hits, and strung together a four-run, fifth-inning barrage.
“It was a long three days,” said Butler, who recorded three hits of Oakland starter Scott Kazmir. “It was tough. It was tough.”
On Sunday, Shields did not miss many bats. He only struck out two. But he missed plenty of barrels. Shields has recovered from an early-summer stumble and again resembled his reliable self. In his last seven starts, he has posted a 1.99 ERA, and has regained his ability to complete innings in efficient fashion.
Athletics manager Bob Melvin stacked his lineup with left-handed swingers to combat Shields. He responded with a slew of changeups to keep them off balance, flinging 24 out of 102 pitches. The changeup can be Shields’ best offering, and its ability to disarm lefties “kind of plays into his advantage,” Royals manager Ned Yost explained.
“He did a great job of getting ahead in the count, and getting decision during the at-bat, early,” Yost said. “But his stuff was good. He was commanding everything.”
For the third day in a row, the Royals starter opened the day with three perfect innings. On Friday, Jeremy Guthrie rode his command through six scoreless innings. On Saturday, Jason Vargas imploded amid a fifth-inning defensive meltdown.
Shields veered toward Guthrie’s path. He stayed perfect through the fifth. He buzzed through the Oakland lineup, inducing pop-ups and grounders. Heading into the sixth, he allowed a ball out of the infield just three times.
“A lot of teams have been super patient with me,” Shields said. “This team was a free-hacking team today. Which is not really their game, but they’ve got a bunch of good hitters over there who were being aggressive. I was able to execute my pitches early in the count.”
The spell broke with the second pitch of the sixth. It was a curveball, low in the zone but over the middle of the plate, and Reddick powered it over the high wall in right-center field.
By then, of course, the Royals had already broken out. A rookie sparked their scoring. Through four innings, Kazmir gave up five hits. Except all were singles, and a Royal did not reach second base. In the first at-bat of the fifth, starting in his first big-league game at third base, Christian Colon cracked a double into right.
“If you look back at the series, each team had that one inning to put them over,” Colon said, and his hit allowed his teammates to start rolling.
An unlikely event extended the rally. Alcides Escobar accepted a walk for only the second time since July 1. A deluge followed: Nori Aoki slapped a fastball down the third-base line for an RBI single. Omar Infante smacked a slider into left to plate two runners with a double. Salvador Perez capped the four-run burst with another line drive into left.
“You stay patient and wait it out,” Yost said. “And hope that when you get a runner in scoring position, you take advantage of it. In the fifth inning, we did numerous times.”
Oakland eventually cleaved the four-run deficit in half. Reddick did the damage. He pulverized a first-pitch fastball with two outs in the eighth. That awoke the crowd. When Jed Lowrie punched a single past Colon at third, the fans emerged in full throat.
Their momentum would not last. Shields finished them off, and handed the baseball over to Greg Holland. He cut down the Athletics in 10 pitches, and added his 31st save of the season to his ledger.
Inside the Royals clubhouse, the players packed up and prepared to fly to various destinations. They have Monday off. When they reconvene on Tuesday in Phoenix, they can remind themselves what they accomplished this weekend.
“I believe in our guys,” Shields said. “I think we’ve got some really good young talent in our starting rotation, as well as some veterans. I think we’re going to compete with anybody.”