Josh Willingham called this ballpark home for three years, but never experienced a winning season. On Aug. 5, in his final game as a Twin, he batted cleanup for a last-place team. A waiver claim saved him from another irrelevant summer, brought him to the Royals and placed him in contention for his first playoff berth in 11 big-league seasons.
Willingham returned 10 days later in a different uniform, serving as the primary actor in a five-run outburst that keyed a 6-5 victory over the Twins. With the bases loaded in the fourth, Willingham erased a two-run deficit. He cleared the bases, plated three runs and received a burst of puzzled applause from the fans here.
With one swing, Willingham showed why the Royals acquired him. He provided heft to a lineup lacking right-handed ballast. He could be the final piece of a club with October aspirations. The pursuit gained ground on Friday, as the Royals (67-54) pushed their division lead to 1 ½ games to begin a lengthy, three-city road trip.
After Willingham ignited the fourth-inning battering, Danny Duffy (8-10, 2.60 ERA) did not complete the sixth inning. Ned Yost pulled him after 79 pitches in 5 1/3 frames. Aaron Crow and Francisley Bueno finished the sixth. From there, the team’s late-game trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland handled the proceedings, with Holland giving up two runs in the bottom of the ninth.
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The last seven days at Kauffman Stadium were ideal. The front office convinced owner David Glass to pick up the remaining on $1.836 million on Willingham’s three-year, $21 million deal with Minnesota. The team swept San Francisco and bested Oakland three times in four games. They clambered over the Tigers in the American League Central standings.
The torrid streak drew the eye of Yost’s managerial mentor. After Thursday’s comeback against Oakland, former Braves manager Bobby Cox sent a message to Yost, a 12-year member of Cox’s coaching staff. Inside his office at Target Field, Yost swiveled in his chair, scooped his phone and began to read.
"Hey Ned, saw your game today," Yost said, conveying the message from the recent inductee into the Hall of Fame. "I have to admit I haven’t seen a more thrilling game in a long time. Pulling for you guys so hard. Fun to watch, keep ‘em going."
Cox pledged to visit Kauffman Stadium if the Royals snap their 29-year playoff drought. "I said, ‘Well, good, Bob, good,’" Yost said. "He said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to sit there in the stands and watch you sweat. Like I sweated for 14 years!"
Yost has possessed little reason for excessive perspiration these past few weeks. His Royals cruised into Target Field to start a nine-game road trip. All three of their opponents – Minnesota, Colorado and Texas – hold losing records. Kansas City can expand its division lead over Detroit by whipping basement dwellers.
On Friday they faced a pitcher returning from the disabled list. Ricky Nolasco missed more than a month because of an elbow strain. The Royals stung a succession of pitches during the first three innings but came up empty.
Duffy made a mess for himself in the third. He allowed a pair of inning-opening singles to shortstop Eduardo Escobar and outfielder Jordan Schafer. When outfielder Danny Santana laid down a sacrifice bunt, Duffy flung it past Omar Infante covering at first. A run scored on the error, and another run came home soon after.
The Twins did not remain ahead for long. Nolasco fell off the tightrope in the fourth. Salvador Perez laced a leadoff double, Billy Butler smacked a single and Alex Gordon loaded the bases with a walk.
Up came Willingham to face his former teammate. Nolasco attempted a slider without bite. Willingham dumped the ball in the left field corner. Once ahead, the Royals began to roll. Mike Moustakas beat a defensive shift with an infield single. Out in center field, Santana misplayed a hit by Alcides Escobar, who was credited with a two-run triple.
Minnesota cobbled together a run in the bottom of the frame. Two innings later, Duffy departed. His fastball command was shaky all evening, and Yost had seen enough. Crow nearly coughed up the lead: Trevor Plouffe flied out to the warning track and Kurt Suzuki singled.
But in came Bueno. He located a 94-mph fastball on the outside corner, and caused outfielder Oswaldo Arcia to roll a harmless grounder to the left side. Bueno covered first for the third out.