For weeks, Royals starting pitchers have struggled to both give manager Ned Yost length and their offense a chance to breathe.
They’ve dug themselves into early ruts, allowing 19 first-inning runs through 20 games in May after allowing just 16 first-inning runs in the first 28 games of the season. They've often labored just to get through five innings.
But on Tuesday at Busch Stadium, Jason Hammel bucked the trend as the Royals beat the Cardinals 5-1.
Hammel hadn’t seen a digit entered into his personal win column since Sept. 6. In 13 starts since he beat the Tigers in Detroit late last season, he’d amassed an 0-8 record and a 7.28 ERA.
“I honestly feel like I forgot how to celebrate a win afterward," Hammel said. "I feel pretty good."
For the Royals, the desperation that accompanies a losing streak only lasted a few days. They last led in a game on Friday, when Jakob Junis and the bullpen held the Yankees to two runs in a 5-2 win.
But Alcides Escobar remedied the situation in the fourth inning Tuesday, shooting a two-out RBI double into the left-field corner to send home Whit Merrifield with the go-ahead run.
Outfielder Alex Gordon supplied the Royals’ first bit of offensive energy. In his first at-bat against Cardinals starter Luke Weaver, Gordon barreled a first-pitch fastball left over the plate and crushed it 417 feet into the lawn beyond the center-field fence. The homer tied the game 1-1 in the second inning.
After Escobar's double, Salvador Perez extended the Royals’ lead to 3-1 with a solo homer leading off the sixth inning.
Hammel, meanwhile, worked around two-out trouble — he allowed six base-runners after getting two outs in three separate innings — and limited Jose Martinez, the former Royals farmhand who entered the game ranked ninth in the National League in batting average (.311), to one hit.
The outing, which lasted seven innings as he yielded nine hits and struck out six, provided Hammel his fifth quality start of the year. He threw 89 pitches and didn't allow much hard contact. Defensive shifts continued to plague him on Tuesday, however, as several hits went through gaps.
“When you abandon one side it’s easy to hit through," Hammel said. "I’m completely against the shift, as of today. Very frustrating. You’re expected to make pitches and you make a pitch, you expect someone to be there to field it. If I had a whole side to hit through I could do it, too."
Other notes from the game:
Old friend alert: Former Royals closer Greg Holland, who's struggled since signing a one-year contract with the Cardinals on opening day, loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth inning. Two pitches later, Jon Jay smacked a two-run single into center field to increase the Royals' lead to four runs and Holland was booed as he was removed from the game.
"He’s one of the best that I’ve ever seen in my life," Yost said. "He pitched his heart out for me for years and years and years and he’s gonna do it here in St. Louis too."
What was that? In the first inning, Perez jumped out of his crouch, ready to pump a throw to catch Marcell Ozuna off the bag at first. But when Ozuna retreated, Martinez, who had singled with two outs, charged up the third-base line in an attempt to steal home. Perez threw to Mike Moustakas so they could try to catch Martinez in a rundown. Moustakas, however, couldn’t cleanly remove the ball from his glove, allowing Martinez to dive and tumble home for the Cardinals’ first run and Ozuna to reach second base.
In the scorebook, the play went down as a double steal.
But Perez made up for the wacky play later, catching a runner trying to steal second base to end both the fourth and sixth innings.
"Salvy had a fantastic game — and those were big spots," Yost said. "I mean, when he threw those two runners out, backed the inning into a double play. Those were huge spots for us."
Snapping streaks: While the Royals snapped a three-game skid, Gordon and Escobar each broke streaks of their own. Gordon had gone 0 for 14 with seven strikeouts before he hit the second-inning homer.
Escobar hit a two-out single in the second to bust an short 0 for 9 slide.
They combined for six hits on Tuesday night.
Up next: The Royals, who improved to 15-33, will conclude the road portion of the I-70 Series at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday. Jakob Junis will make his 10th start of the season.