The homecoming ended with a three-child welcoming committee. A chorus of “Daddy!” rang as Josh Willingham opened the door of the visitors’ clubhouse at Target Field and welcomed his boys, ages 2, 4 and 7.
Willingham called this ballpark home for three years but never experienced a winning season. On Sunday, in his final game as a Twin, he batted fifth for a last-place team. A waiver claim saved him from another irrelevant summer, sent him to the Royals and placed him in contention for his first playoff berth in 11 big-league seasons.
Willingham returned five days later in a Kansas City uniform, serving as the primary actor in five-run, fourth-inning outburst in a 6-5 Royals victory. With the bases loaded in the fourth, Willingham erased a two-run deficit. He cleared the bases, drove in three runs and received a burst of puzzled applause from the fans here.
“I knew that was a big spot for us,” Willingham said. “I was just happy to, this time, come through.”
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Alcides Escobar added a two-run triple soon after, and a crucial RBI single in the eighth. Still, with one swing, Willingham provided a reminder as to why the Royals had acquired him. He provides heft to a lineup lacking right-handed ballast. He could be the final piece for a club with October aspirations.
The pursuit gained ground on Friday, as the Royals pushed their division lead to 11/2 games to begin a three-city road trip. Even so, the discussion afterward focused on the ninth inning, when the Royals nearly gave back a three-run lead. Greg Holland, the Royals’ stalwart closer, delivered a wobbly performance, allowing two runs in the ninth.
While the team won for the 11th time in 12 days, the performance of Holland was a tad troubling. Manager Ned Yost blamed himself for Holland’s struggles. He said he has been using Holland too often, eight times already this month, and Holland is showing the strain.
“He’s worn out,” Yost said. “Poor thing. He’s out there battling his (backside) off. His arm is a little bit slow. He’s fighting command. He’s a little bit tired.”
Yost indicated the remedy was a day off. After that, he expected Holland to bounce back.
It was a night of bullpen maneuvering for Yost.
After Willingham ignited the fourth-inning battering, Danny Duffy, 8-10, did not complete the sixth inning. Yost pulled him after 79 pitches in 5 1/3 innings. Aaron Crow and Francisley Bueno finished the sixth. From there, the team’s late-game trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Holland handled the proceedings.
The previous seven days at Kauffman Stadium were ideal. The front office persuaded 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 up his phone and began to read.
“Hey Ned, saw your game today,” Yost said, conveying the message from Cox, a 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 had little reason for excessive perspiration these last 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 had missed more than a month because of an elbow strain. The Royals stung a succession of pitches over the first three innings but came up empty.
Duffy made a mess for himself in the third. He allowed a two 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.
“I was frustrated with myself,” Duffy said. “But you can’t get over-agitated about it. I just knew that the guys would come through and do what they did.”
The Twins would 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 inning. Two innings later, Duffy departed. His 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.
“I had no problem with it,” Duffy said. “Do I want to stay in? Yeah. But you’ve got to look at the big picture. Skip made the right move.”
In the Royals’ eighth, three singles created a sixth run. Escobar looped a single into shallow right for a two-out RBI. The run was decisive, considering Holland’s outing in the bottom of the inning.
“I like that one better than the other one,” Escobar said. “That’s a big run right there.”