Take a deep breath. OK, maybe take another one.
On a steamy, sweltering night at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals faced outright calamity, stared it down, and struck for two runs in the bottom of the ninth, engineering a 4-3 walk-off victory over the Detroit Tigers. In moments, an embattled designated hitter delivered his most clutch night as a Royals and a stadium reveled in the celebration, an unlikely mosh pit spilling out onto the infield at just past 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The sequence was madcap and improbable. Closer Kelvin Herrera allowed a two-run homer in the top of the ninth, squandering a 2-1 lead. The Royals’ bottom of the order offered a dramatic rescue. Brandon Moss delivered a game-tying double in the bottom of the inning against Tigers closer Justin Wilson, scoring Alcides Escobar from first base. Moss scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly by Alex Gordon.
“We’ve been losing a lot lately,” Gordon said. “So it was kind of a dagger in the ninth.”
Moss finished 3 for 4 with a homer — his first since July 1 — and two RBIs. Starter Jason Hammel offered 6 1/3 strong innings on a stifling summer night. The Royals (46-47) dusted themselves off after seven losses in eight games and climbed within two games of first-place Cleveland in the American League Central. (Yes, read that sentence again.)
“It’s just big for all of us,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “We pick up a game. Those are the kind of games that hopefully get your momentum going again.”
Nearly 25 minutes after the victory, Moss appeared inside the clubhouse in jeans and a T-shirt. A few feet away, second baseman Whit Merrifield peered at the highlights on a clubhouse TV, providing play-by-play on an awkward embrace during the celebration. (“It looked bad,” he said.) On the other side of the room, third baseman Mike Moustakas watched as Moss approached a collection of reporters.
“Mossy!” Moose yelled.
All year long, Moss had scuffled, plagued by strikeouts and poor at-bats. He entered Wednesday batting .188 with 10 homers.
The Royals preached patience. If Moss got hot, Yost warned, look out. He could carry a team for two or three weeks. Yet here Moss was, a designated hitter who was not hitting. His own harshest critic, the woeful performance weighed on him. Moss just wanted to contribute, he said. As a group of reporters encircled his locker late Wednesday, he offered a smile.
“This is really nice to talk to you about other than sucking,” he said.
On Wednesday, he came with a plan against Tigers starter Justin Verlander, who had bombarded him with curveballs in two starts earlier this year. On this night, Moss would sit on nothing but breaking balls. The strategy paid off with a game-tying solo homer off the right-field foul pole in the third inning.
“I just want to contribute,” Moss said. “I’m not looking to go out and have my best year ever. I’m not looking to go out and hit .300 or hit 40 home runs. I just want to contribute. I want to be a part of this team.
“I know that if I can play anywhere close to what I’m able to play, I can be a big part of this team. I can pick up some things when guys aren’t having the best night.”
On Wednesday, he helped pick up Herrera, a closer who was pitching one day after battling a 102-degree fever and sore throat.
Two outs from victory, Herrera served up a two-run homer to Detroit’s Mikie Mahtook in the top of the ninth, wasting a 2-1 lead. The baseball landed 418 feet from home plate, sailing over the wall in dead center field, clearing the glove of Lorenzo Cain, a near kill shot in what would have been a disastrous night at Kauffman Stadium.
“I just wore out,” Herrera said. “No energy.”
The pitch was a 98 mph fastball on a 1-2 count. Mahtook hammered it to center field. Moments later, Herrera exited the game alongside head trainer Nick Kenney. He appeared fine in the clubhouse following the game.
“He was just overheated a little bit,” Yost said.
Before the late drama, the biggest moment had come in the seventh inning.
In 3,025 plate appearances across seven seasons, Royals catcher Salvador Perez had recorded just nine triples. Once every 337 times at the plate, the baseball would fall just right in the gap, or a fielder would find himself out of position, and Perez would lug his 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame 270 feet around the bases.
This is not the rarest sight you might see at Kauffman Stadium, but it might be on the short list, and on this night, the sight of a large man rumbling around the bases was the precursor to a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh.
Perez hit a sinking liner to left field that turned into the 10th triple of his career. He scored on an RBI single by Moustakas off Verlander. The sequence delivered a late lead following seven losses in eight games.
Perez was only batting because rookie Jorge Bonifacio had been picked off second base to end the sixth inning. Perez opened the inning by yanking a first-pitch curveball into left field.
The baseball hung in the air for just a moment, a white orb tempting Tigers left fielder Justin Upton into an ill-advised dive. When the baseball slipped under Upton’s glove and bounced toward the wall, Perez was hauling toward third base.
As Perez cruised into third base, his chest heaved and his legs burned. He owned his first triple since May 23, 2016. Moments later, Verlander ran the count to 3-0 against Moustakas. All night, he had hurled 96 mph fastballs at Moustakas. As a fourth straight fastball zoomed toward the plate, Moustakas would guess right, roping an RBI single into center for a 2-1 lead.
The Royals improved to 3-6 against the Tigers and 14-23 against the American League Central. The divisional record has been a persistent flaw in the club’s quest for a third postseason appearance in four seasons. In 36 games against divisional foes, the Royals had allowed 5.42 runs per game. In 56 games against the rest of baseball, they had yielded just 3.93 runs per contest. On Wednesday, Hammel helped reverse the trend.
In his previous start, he had taken a no-hitter into the sixth inning before surrendering a game-tying three-run homer to Texas’ Adrian Beltre. On Wednesday, he allowed a run in the first and then went into shutdown mode. On another hot night, as the heat index tipped toward 101 at first pitch, Hammel would need an IV following his start. The effort was well worth it.
“I wanted to go deeper,” he said.
The Royals climbed out of the early 1-0 hole when Moss homered against Verlander in the bottom of the third. The 361-foot blast ricocheted off the foul pole in right field. The game remained tied until the seventh.
Moss had not homered since July 1 against Minnesota. He had clubbed two long balls since May 21. He entered Wednesday with just two hits in his previous 19 at-bats since July 1.
But for a moment, a solo homer erased a one-run deficit. Perez and Moustakas combined to produce a run in the seventh. After losses Monday and Tuesday, the Royals can now split the series on Thursday when Danny Duffy takes the mound against Detroit’s Michael Fulmer.
In the ninth, the night looked lost. Then came one final burst.
“You would think we would have been down a little bit more when that happened,” Moss said. “But Hos and the guys came in and they were pumped up … saying ‘All we need is one. If we can get one and get back in this, we’ll win it.’ ”