On a night when he hit another bomb, Billy Butler’s dribbler proved just as valuable.
Butler’s seeing-eye single in the sixth inning provided the go-ahead run and allowed the Royals to access their greatest strength, the bullpen.
It added up to a 4-2 victory over the Giants that kept the Royals sizzling. They’ve won five straight, 13 of 16 and moved to a season-best eight games over .500.
In playoff chases on parallel tracks, the Royals remained 2 1/2 games behind the Tigers in the American League Central chase and a half-game ahead of the Yankees for the second wild-card position.
At this point year ago, the Royals held a similar record but were further back in the standings, seemingly always in a chase mode with the leaders off in the distance. This year feels different.
“I think this team is better,” Butler said. “We have the experience from last year of competing and having an opportunity to get there. But this team, we’re figuring out a way to win every night.”
Friday, the sixth was the decisive inning. Omar Infante got it started with a one-out single. He moved to third when first baseman Michael Morse dove to stop Salvador Perez’s soft one-hopper but threw wide of second.
That brought up Butler, who battled back from a 0-2 count to serve a bouncer through the hole on the right side.
“I’m just trying to put the ball in play, get the ball to the outfield, do whatever I can,” Butler said.
The Royals had the lead, and the bullpen, as it usually does, bought it home.
“It wasn’t pretty, but it was huge, because it got us to our power arms,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland did their thing over the final three innings, with a brief scare in the eighth. Davis surrendered a pair of singles to open the frame, but struck out pinch-hitter Joe Panik and got Matt Duffy to ground into a double play.
That set up Holland, whose league-leading 33rd save was No. 100 in his career.
“It means we’re winning,” Holland said when asked about the significance of the milestone.
Not to be lost in the effort was the sixth-inning performance of Jason Frasor, who struck out two in his perfect inning of relief of starter Jason Vargas.
Butler got the Royals off to a fast start.
The first pitch he saw on the night appeared low and inside, but home plate umpire Kerwin Danley called it a strike. Butler stepped out of the box to collect himself and a few pitches later, wham! Butler’s first-inning 422-foot home run off Madison Bumgarner cleared the left-field bullpen, scoring Infante, who had doubled ahead of him.
Butler cracked the fourth home run of his last 13 games after hitting three in his first 100.
The Giants came within a foot or so of getting it all back and then some in the second. Juan Perez, who entered the game hitting .167, turned on a Vargas offering and sent it toward the left-field foul pole.
Perez and the Giants thought they had a three-run homer. An umpire crew-chief review confirmed the original call. Foul.
But instead of powering up early, the Giants nicked away at Vargas. They put multiple runners on in each of the first three innings but didn’t cash in until the third, when Joaquin Arias slapped an RBI double down the left-field line and Duffy delivered an RBI single to right.
The third might have been more productive for the Giants, but outfielder Nori Aoki gunned down not one but two runners in the inning.
Aoki’s bullet to third was on line but a tad late to get the sliding Hunter Pence. However Pence’s foot came off the bag while Mike Moustakas kept the tag on his helmet.
On Duffy’s single, Arias tried to score from second, but Aoki’s throw beat him by a couple of strides.
With that throw, Aoki joined Amos Otis in 1970 and Bob Oliver in 1969, the franchise’s first year, in recording two outfield assists in an inning.
“You might have two in a game, but never in one inning,” said Aoki through his interpreter Kosuke Inaji.
After Vargas’ first clean inning in the fifth, his night was over. Butler and the bullpen did their thing and the Royals roll continued.