The Royals’ 3-0 victory over the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday wasn’t merely a victory over a team with the best record in baseball.
It was a good sign.
A day after the A’s body-slammed the Royals, ending Kansas City’s eight-game winning streak, the response was precisely what is required from a team with designs on playoff baseball.
“This is what we have to do if we want to keep playing games that matter,” pitcher Jason Vargas said.
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This one mattered plenty. It assured another day in first place in the American League Central. The Detroit Tigers remained a half-game back when they ended a four-game skid by beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-4 on Wednesday night.
The Royals remained ahead largely on the strength of Vargas’ left arm. In his third start after his appendectomy, he threw a masterpiece.
After surrendering three hits in the first two innings, he retired the final 23. The key was an adjustment. Vargas and catcher Salvador Perez decided to feed the A’s more fastballs.
“We saw they were trying to lean out, get a pitch out over the plate or be able to stay on the change-up,” Vargas said. “We made an adjustment, and we were able to locate on the inside part of the plate. It really changed the game for us.”
Omar Infante’s two-run homer and solid defense throughout the night also allowed the Royals to keep Tuesday’s outcome from becoming a habit, like it did two months ago. Then, after the Royals ripped off 10 straight wins and climbed into first place, the glee was doused by four straight losses that started a tailspin.
That was then, Royals manager Ned Yost said.
“There was so much of the season left at that point,” Yost said. “It’s a total different feeling, and it’s hard to explain why. It’s a real energy, a real sense of confidence inside that locker room. Like they’re not going to let anything deter them.”
The Royals have taken two of three from the A’s, with the series finale Thursday at 1:10 p.m. Win that, and the Royals will have captured their seventh straight series. It started after getting swept at Boston coming out of the All-Star break.
Over the last week, starting pitching has peaked. The Royals entered last week without having pitched a complete game. They’ve now pitched three in seven days. Jeremy Guthrie got the first at Arizona. James Shields shut out the Giants on Saturday, and Vargas cooled off a team that pounded the Royals for 11 runs and 20 hits on Tuesday.
It marked the first time the Royals tossed two shutouts in a week since 2006.
Wednesday, the A’s got two hits in the first, and Jed Lowrie opened the second with a single. He was erased on a double play, and no more A’s would reach.
Vargas got all the run support he needed in the third. Nori Aoki’s one-out single to right, his second hit in as many at-bats, got things started.
Up stepped Infante, who hadn’t hit a home run since his career first grand slam on June 27. He turned on Kazmir’s offering and deposited it in the left-field bullpen.
“It felt good,” Infante said. “I made good contact. I was aggressive with fastball. I saw it well.”
Infante was in the middle of the next Royals’ score, this time with hustle.
Christian Colon’s bunt survived a challenge from A’s manager Bob Melvin, and Aoki sacrificed him to second.
Infante hit a slow roller to Lowrie at shortstop, and conventional baseball wisdom has Colon remaining at second base.
Instead, Colon darted to third and Infante beat the throw at first. Salvador Perez lofted a fly deep enough to right to score Colon.
The Royals were finished scoring, and the A’s never started, thanks to Vargas.