A red-eye flight awaited the Royals after a 6-2 victory Thursday over Arizona. They departed the desert in an ideal position, one that appeared so unlikely a few weeks ago. The Royals return to Kansas City in sole possession of the American League’s second wild card, and control their own destiny as they hunt for their first playoff berth since 1985.
Inside the visiting manager’s office at Chase Field, manager Ned Yost insisted his sights were set higher than a one-game playoff.
“We’re not even looking at the second wild card right now,” Yost said. “Our focus is on winning the division.”
The club inched closer to that goal, pulling within 2 1/2 games of Detroit. In completing a sweep of the Diamondbacks, Jeremy Guthrie authored a clinic on efficiency in a complete-game victory. After giving up seven hits in the first three innings, he kept his opponents off the bases for the next five innings. He retired the last 19 batters he faced.
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The offense struck early and in swift fashion. Alex Gordon thumped his first home run since June 21. Salvador Perez contributed a two-RBI single, and Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki each offered RBI hits.
The flurries allowed the Royals, 60-53, to return home with momentum in time for seven momentous games against San Francisco and Oakland. The bullpen will be fresh, because Guthrie went the distance for the first time since Aug. 5, 2013. He also became the first Royal to pitch a complete game in 2013.
“We needed that,” Gordon said. “The bullpen has been doing a lot for us all year.”
The external events on Thursday favored them. The Tigers dropped their third game in four days at Yankee Stadium. The Blue Jays lost for the fifth time in six games.
With five wins in six games, this West Coast sojourn solidified the Royals as a playoff contender. Operating without Eric Hosmer, their Gold Glove first baseman, the Royals did not miss a beat.
Instead, they behaved as a team bound for October might: For three days in Oakland, they toppled one of baseball’s best and garnered a series victory. For three nights in Phoenix, they thrashed an overmatched Arizona club.
“When you sweep a team the way we did, that’s fun,” first baseman Billy Butler said. “We played well in every facet of the game.”
On July 21, the Royals managed merely a futile effort against White Sox ace Chris Sale. They fell two games below .500, and eight behind the Tigers. General manager Dayton Moore issued a vote of confidence for Yost, a dreaded event at this time of year. As the trade deadline approached, a potential fire sale appeared more fruitful than a doomed push for the playoffs.
The players reversed the narrative in expedient fashion, winning 12 of their next 15 games. Yost’s seat cooled. Even after standing pat on July 31, unable to patch over right field or improve the starting rotation, the Royals continued to roll.
“You have ups and downs,” Butler said. “You just hope to have more ups than downs.”
During these last six games, they experienced both the unexpected and the commonplace. Butler found his batting stroke, and Mike Moustakas wielded some power. Aoki hit a grand slam. James Shields dominated. The back end of the bullpen remained ferocious. And their fifth starter nabbed two victories.
This trip began with a stalwart effort from Guthrie. He muffled the Athletics for six innings in last Friday’s 1-0 victory. In his first inning on Thursday, he yielded his first run of the trip. Arizona cobbled together a pair of singles, one of which Moustakas could have fielded at third, and a sacrifice fly by Mark Trumbo.
The Royals did not spend much time trailing. Four pitches into the second inning, they captured the lead. Butler smoked an 0-2 curveball into the left-field corner for a double. Arizona starter Vidal Nuno placed the bender below Butler’s knees, but he still dug it out.
The next offering from Nuno was a waist-high fastball. The Chase Field radar gun clocked it at 90 mph, but it departed the playing field at a quicker speed. Gordon pulverized the ball past the Royals bullpen near the right-field pole.
An inning later, the Royals fashioned two more runs thanks to a trio of singles and a dash of guile. The first two singles were credited to Aoki and Omar Infante. From there, the duo executed a double steal. Arizona catcher Miguel Montero skipped his throw to third base, and both were safe.
The gamble placed two men in scoring position for Perez. He hooked a fastball past a dive by rookie Jake Lamb and brought both runners home.
Lamb exacted a measure of revenge in the bottom of the inning. Called up earlier in the afternoon, he dunked a single into center field that cut the Royals lead in half. It was the seventh hit Guthrie gave up during his first three innings.
He would not allow a Diamondback to reach base from there. It was a vital performance as the Royals, in line for a potential playoff berth, prepared to go home.
“If I didn’t give up seven hits and two runs in the first three innings, maybe we would have been thinking about something different,” Guthrie said. “But, at that point, you’re not really worried about consecutive hitters as much as quick outs.”