Royals reclaim first place in Central with 3-2 victory over Oakland

The Royals' Alcides Escobar lines up an RBI single that scored teammate Norichika Aoki for the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of Monday's baseball game against the Athletics at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals' Alcides Escobar lines up an RBI single that scored teammate Norichika Aoki for the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of Monday's baseball game against the Athletics at Kauffman Stadium. The Kansas City Star

A small bit of bedlam broke out at Kauffman Stadium on Monday evening.

The final out of a 3-2 victory clutched in his glove, Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson completed a back flip as the Oakland Athletics collected the gear inside their dugout and their hosts celebrated their eighth consecutive triumph.

Along a catwalk near the team’s Hall of Fame in left field, SungWoo Lee, the club’s suddenly celebrated fan from South Korea, hoisted a victorious “W” sign.

The screen high above center field relayed a message: “Your Kansas City Royals are now in first place … ” a reality that incited an echoing roar from the 21,479 fans here.

Their lead over the careening Detroit Tigers is a mere half-game. Forty-five games remain. Yet the moment still qualifies as a milestone: Kansas City leads its division at the latest date in a season since Aug. 29, 2003.

To return to this point, the Royals, 64-53, rallied from an eight-game deficit on July 21. They have won 16 of their last 19, including three from Oakland, a group heralded as one of baseball’s giants.

“We beat a great team out there tonight,” first baseman Billy Butler said. “They’re the best team in the league. We did it last week. And we did it again tonight. It’s just one of those things where we’re continuing to play our game.”

On Tuesday they leaned on their usual calculus. Yordano Ventura provided stalwart starting pitching, limiting the Athletics to two runs in six innings. The bullpen throttled the opposition, with four strikeouts split between Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis. Greg Holland defused a jam in the ninth.

The offense sputtered at the hands of Oakland starter Sonny Gray — until the rare openings arrived. Alcides Escobar had a pair of two-out, two-strike RBI singles, including the go-ahead hit in the seventh.

“We’re capitalizing on just about every opportunity we get right now,” manager Ned Yost said. “It’s fun to watch. The confidence, especially there in the seventh inning — I just felt like Esky was going to come through.”

With one out in the seventh and designated hitter Raul Ibanez at first, Yost inserted Nori Aoki as a pinch runner. Aoki advanced to second on a ground-out. As Escobar began his tussle with Gray, he appeared lost. Gray froze Escobar with one curveball, and fooled him into taking what Escobar called “a bad swing” with another.

“I said, if he throws me one more, I’m trying to hit the ball to the middle,” Escobar said. “And that’s right, the ball was going through to center field.”

Aoki stormed to the plate. He rose from his slide and stomped it for emphasis. Both he and Dyson, in the on-deck circle, pointed to Escobar, who was pumping his fist at first.

The victory capped an idyllic evening. About an hour before the game, the club announced the acquisition of Minnesota outfielder Josh Willingham, who fills a power-hitting void on the roster. Shortly eafter, they watched Detroit continue its downward dive.

Kansas City’s winning streak coincides with a disastrous few days for the Tigers. On Friday, starter Anibal Sanchez strained a pectoral muscle. On Saturday, former Royal Joakim Soria strained an oblique. Each could miss a month. And a day after razing their bullpen in a 19-inning loss to Toronto, Detroit saw starter Justin Verlander depart after one inning due to pain in his shoulder in an eventual 11-6 loss to Pittsburgh.

At times this season, the Royals’ spirit has ebbed. The quality has reemerged in full flower in recent weeks.

“This is our second time in first place this year,” Dyson said. “We’re trying to hold onto it. We’re trying to make that playoff push. We can’t get caught up in what Detroit’s doing. Or whoever’s behind us.”

Monday’s matchup pitted the team with baseball’s best record and the team with baseball’s longest ongoing winning streak.

Before the game, the opposing managers exchanged a bit of playful banter. Each crossed a milestone recently. Last week in Arizona, Yost collected his 800th victory. This past weekend, Oakland skipper Bob Melvin achieved the same.

The duo worked on the same staff during the 2012 All-Star Game here, but their relationship is minimal.

“We haven’t had sleepovers or anything,” Yost quipped.

“I would concur,” Melvin responded, when informed of Yost’s line. “No sleepovers. Nor will there be.”

Instead, the two teams staged yet another pitchers’ duel. Save for one blighted inning, the Royals suppressed Oakland’s offense in their Coliseum showdown two weeks ago. Kansas City escaped with a series victory and confidence heading into the rematch.

Dyson scored the day’s first run in a manner that exemplified the Royals’ recent stretch of good fortune. A first-inning break led to the run. He opened with a single, and Omar Infante followed by dunking another hit into right. Outfielder Josh Reddick scooped up the ball and prepared to relay it in — except the ball squirted from his hand, and hit the grass.

Dyson took third. His advancement was important. Salvador Perez slapped the second pitch he saw into a double play that brought Dyson home. The unearned run gave Ventura an early lead, and Escobar’s first RBI hit added to the advantage.

In the third, Ventura lost his connection with the strike zone. He stuffed fastballs too far inside against Coco Crisp. He missed up and down against Josh Donaldson. After a leadoff single, the two walks loaded the bases. Brandon Moss tied the game by stroking a 97-mph fastball back up the middle for a two-run hit.

“After the second inning, he made some adjustments,” said pitcher Bruce Chen, who interprets for Ventura. “He was flying open a little bit, and was able to make the adjustment and able to go deep in the game.”

The score remained tied after six innings, yet Yost operated with supreme confidence. He understood that the Athletics, like each team that has faced the Royals this season, lacked much of a chance against Herrera, Davis and Holland. All he required was a piece of timely hitting.

In the seventh, Escobar played the hero. The role rotates nightly for this club, which has dragged itself from two games under .500 all the way back to first place.

“You can’t put words on it,” Butler said. “We’re out there playing, we’re out there having fun. We’re having a blast.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.

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