Royals

Royals beat Blue Jays 3-2, surpass .500 for the first time

Early Saturday morning, in the hours before a 3-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium, Royals manager Ned Yost was asked why Jason Vargas, the day’s starting pitcher, deserved inclusion in this year’s All-Star Game.

It was a simple question, a prompt that would allow Yost a platform to make an All-Star case for his team’s first-half MVP. He could have taken it anywhere. He could have discussed Vargas’ ERA — 2.29 after his 15th start. He could have weighed in on his value to the surging Royals, once left adrift and treading water in last place. But for a simple question, Yost preferred a brief answer:

“Wins and losses,” he said.

This was the case for Vargas on Saturday morning, and it was the case again in the afternoon, in the moments after the 34-year-old left-hander had held the Blue Jays to two runs in seven innings and notched his major-league-leading 11th win.

For pitchers, the win statistic may be an archaic measurement, one whose importance has diminished over the decades. Yet there is no questioning the value of Vargas, who momentarily slipped past Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.

On the 82nd day of the baseball season, the Royals (37-36) moved above .500 for the first time, winning for the 11th time in 13 games and clinching their fifth consecutive series victory. On an afternoon inside Kauffman Stadium, the offense delivered late, repaying Vargas for shouldering an immense load during this volatile first half.

In the seventh, Alex Gordon raked a go-ahead triple into the right-field corner against Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada, scoring Alcides Escobar from first and breaking a 2-2 tie. The bullpen duo of Joakim Soria and Kelvin Herrera protected the lead in the eighth and ninth. Just 15 hours or so after a stunning comeback Friday night, the Royals used another vintage formula: Sterling starting pitching, daring base running, and ample production from the bottom of their lineup.

“That’s what good teams do,” said first baseman Eric Hosmer, who hit his ninth homer of the season in the fourth inning. “They find ways to win games late.”

The Royals sliced into the lead in the tightening American League Central, pulling within two games of first-place Cleveland and 1  1/2 games of second-place Minnesota after the Twins beat the Indians. They also improved to 11-4 in games started by Vargas.

And for the second straight day, they received a lift from the bottom of their lineup, once a wasteland of lost at-bats. Escobar finished 3 for 3 and scored two runs, outproducing the other eight batters in hits (two) and raising his batting average to .209, its highest point since April 20. Gordon came through with a clutch RBI in the seventh, ripping an elevated change-up down the line in right.

The moments came just one day after Escobar and Gordon played key roles in the out-of-nowhere ninth-inning rally. As Yost discussed this latest victory at his postgame press conference, he sought to draw a direct link between the emergence of Escobar and Gordon and a 15-6 record in June.

“Before, we would hit a dead zone and it was generally 7-8-9 and all the offensive flow would stop,” Yost said. “Now with Gordy swinging the bat much, much better, and Esky swinging the bat much, much better, there’s no stoppage of the offensive flow.”

On Saturday, Escobar’s flow was not textbook, though it did resemble his offensive game. He recorded two bloop singles and tripled on a fly ball to right-center field in the third when right fielder Jose Bautista and center fielder Kevin Pillar struggled to communicate. Yet after a mentally grueling season at the plate, Escobar smiled. He could feel good about something.

After his triple in the third, he tagged and scored on a shallow fly ball to left field, wisely testing the arm of left fielder Steve Pearce. In a victorious clubhouse, Escobar said he had simply followed the scouting report.

“If they hit the ball to left field — run,” Escobar said.

The run tied the game at 1-1 and set up Hosmer’s go-ahead homer in the fourth. On a 1-0 change-up, Hosmer launched a ball high into the air in right field. With some aid from the wind, it carried and carried, just over the right-field wall, a projected 381 feet from home plate for his ninth homer of 2017.

The Royals carried the 2-1 lead into the seventh. Vargas allowed his second homer, surrendering a game-tying solo shot to Pillar after giving up a solo homer to Troy Tulowitzki in the second. Inside the Royals’ dugout, Hosmer said, a collection of hitters felt obligated to cover for Vargas.

“As an offense, you really want to pick up your guy right there,” Hosmer said.

The combination of Escobar and Gordon produced the decisive run. Vargas became the first Royals pitcher to secure his 11th win by June 24 since Kevin Appier in 1995.

“The fellas came back,” Vargas said.

For now, there are still more than two weeks until the All-Star Game. It is July 11 in Miami, in the city in which Vargas began his career. He will have two more starts before then, time to bolster his credentials even more. But at the moment, his case is impressive.

At 11-3 with a 2.29 ERA, he ranks first in the American League in wins and second in ERA behind Houston’s Dallas Keuchel. According to the FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, he has been one of the four most valuable starters in the AL.

In a Royals’ season that began with a miserable April, including a 10-20 start, and continued with a valiant charge back up the standings, Vargas has been the club’s rock, its most consistent and valuable piece.

“You could make a strong case for it,” Yost said.

On Saturday, the rock delivered another strong performance. And the Royals took another step. This time, they moved past .500. Now, Yost says, they must keep going.

“We battled back,” Yost said. “We’ve gotten there. Now the goal is to get past it.”

Royals 3, Blue Jays 2

Toronto

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

Bautista rf

4

0

1

0

0

1

.230

Martin 3b

4

0

0

0

0

1

.221

Donaldson dh

4

0

1

0

0

0

.281

Smoak 1b

4

0

1

0

0

0

.305

Pearce lf

3

0

0

0

0

1

.252

a-Morales ph

1

0

0

0

0

1

.267

Tulowitzki ss

4

1

2

1

0

0

.241

1-Parmley pr

0

0

0

0

0

0

.000

Pillar cf

4

1

2

1

0

0

.253

Barney 2b

3

0

2

0

0

1

.233

Maile c

3

0

0

0

0

0

.122

Totals

34

2

9

2

0

5

Royals

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

Merrifield 2b

2

0

0

1

1

0

.288

Bonifacio rf

1

0

0

0

3

0

.245

Cain cf

4

0

0

0

0

1

.277

Hosmer 1b

4

1

1

1

0

0

.300

Perez c

4

0

0

0

0

1

.290

Moustakas 3b

4

0

0

0

0

1

.268

Moss dh

3

0

0

0

0

2

.184

Escobar ss

3

2

3

0

0

0

.209

Gordon lf

3

0

1

1

0

1

.191

Totals

28

3

5

3

4

6

Toronto

010

000

100

2

9

0

Royals

001

100

10x

3

5

0

a-struck out for Pearce in the 9th. 1-ran for Tulowitzki in the 9th.

LOB: Toronto 5, Kansas City 6. 2B: Donaldson (7). 3B: Escobar (1), Gordon (1). HR: Tulowitzki (3), off Vargas; Pillar (9), off Vargas; Hosmer (9), off Estrada. RBIs: Tulowitzki (17), Pillar (19), Merrifield (29), Hosmer (31), Gordon (15). SF: Merrifield.

Runners left in scoring position: Toronto 1 (Smoak); Kansas City 2 (Cain 2). RISP: Toronto 0 for 3; Kansas City 0 for 4. GIDP: Bautista, Tulowitzki. DP: Kansas City 2 (Escobar, Merrifield, Hosmer), (Escobar, Merrifield, Hosmer).

Toronto

I

H

R

ER

W

K

P

ERA

Estrada L, 4-6

7

5

3

3

4

6

117

4.89

Beliveau

1

0

0

0

0

0

9

4.32

Royals

I

H

R

ER

W

K

P

ERA

Vargas W, 11-3

7

8

2

2

0

2

98

2.29

Soria

1

0

0

0

0

2

11

3.77

Herrera S, 18

1

1

0

0

0

1

17

4.35

Hold: Soria (11).

Umpires: Home, Joe West; First, John Tumpane; Second, Cory Blaser; Third, Laz Diaz. Time: 2:26. Att: 26,938.

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