Royals backup catcher Drew Butera had barely moved his bat in four pitches.
Cardinals reliever Bud Norris had pumped him three straight 94 mph fastballs that came in just too low for a strike, then offered a sinker that hit the middle of the zone.
With a teammate standing at every base, the Cardinals infield drawn in, and no outs in the 10th inning of Wednesday’s I-70 series finale at Busch Stadium, Butera wasn’t going to chance selecting the wrong pitch to hit.
The right one came seconds later: Another fastball on the edge of the strike zone, but just high enough over the plate for Butera to tag with the end of his bat and line a two-run single over the glove of diving second baseman Matt Carpenter.
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As Butera charged down the first-base line, Jorge Soler and Alex Gordon scored easily, giving the Royals a lead on the way to a 5-2 win over the Cardinals.
“That’s a tough spot to be in right there,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “You don’t want to expand, you don’t want to chase. Perfect, didn’t try to do too much with it. I mean, it was just textbook clutch hitting right there and just drive the ball back up the middle.”
The Royals added another 10th-inning run on Jon Jay's single to left field. With closer Kelvin Herrera recording his 10th save, the Royals secured their first road series victory and second series win overall this season.
They arrived in St. Louis on Monday reeling. During a 1-7 stretch, they dropped five in a row and were swept by the Rays in three games at Kauffman Stadium last week. Even after Jakob Junis keyed a victory over the Yankees in what became yet another lost series, the Royals couldn’t grasp a single shred of momentum.
But against the Cardinals, now a 26-21 team trying to contend in a rather strong National League Central Division, the Royals finally found some footing.
“We’ve been struggling a little bit,” manager Ned Yost said. “We just haven’t been playing bad baseball. We haven’t been winning, we haven’t been pitching very well, we haven’t been hitting very well and we needed to. So it was a good series for us.”
The pitching: Junis, who started on Wednesday, did not factor into the decision. He departed the game after five innings, during which he allowed two earned runs on five hits and struck out seven. He threw his slider 39 times and for the most part befuddled the Cardinals lineup with the pitch. Of his seven strikeouts, five came on sliders.
He fooled Jose Martinez on a slider that finished below the far corner of the plate to end the fifth inning and his outing. Junis pumped his fist on his way off the mound — the strikeout had allowed him to strand two runners on first and second and keep the Cardinals' lead at 2-1.
"I think he set the tone for the bullpen to come in," Butera said. "He made those guys a little bit uncomfortable at the plate and that opened up both sides of the plate for our guys to jump in."
Whit Merrifield lofted a sacrifice flyball to center field in top of the sixth inning to tie the score at 2-2 and take Junis off the hook.
The bullpen threw five scoreless innings and Blaine Boyer received the win.
Flashing leather: Countless times this season, Alex Gordon has proven that neither age nor injury will limit his range in the outfield. He did so again in the seventh inning. On a line drive that came off Francisco Pena’s bat at 108 mph, Gordon ranged to his right, fully extended his body and dived to come up with the ball and the out. He lay still on the grass near the left-field corner for a few seconds while he caught his breath, then brushed off the Superman-esque stretch with a grin. His teammates tipped gloves and caps in his direction.
“He was a pull guy so I was positioned over there a little bit anyway," Gordon said. "Plus, I was trying to avoid the sun, so I was creeping that way. One of those balls when you see it, you think in your mind, ‘I’m going to catch this.’ It’s do or die."
Up next: The Royals, who improved to 16-33, head to Texas for a four-game series against the Rangers. Danny Duffy will start the opener Thursday.