Royals

Royals beat A’s 3-2, improve to season’s best 15 games over .500

The Royals’ Eric Hosmer (right) celebrated on a single by Kendrys Morales in the sixth inning Saturday against the Athletics in Oakland.
The Royals’ Eric Hosmer (right) celebrated on a single by Kendrys Morales in the sixth inning Saturday against the Athletics in Oakland. The Associated Press

Rusty Kuntz glanced at his stopwatch and logged the times for usage on Saturday: 1.7 seconds to the plate, 1.8, 1.9, “at least,” Kuntz said, whenever Oakland starter Scott Kazmir pitched with a runner at second base. Manager Ned Yost banked the research from his first-base coach and waited until the sixth inning of a 3-2 Royals victory to deploy it.

Kansas City entered the frame trailing by a run. Nursing a sore left hamstring, Lorenzo Cain coaxed a walk off Kazmir to lead off. At first base, Kuntz informed Cain to be ready to run if he reached second. When Eric Hosmer smacked a single, Kuntz delivered a similar message: Keep your eyes locked on Cain.

“Don’t miss that train,” Kuntz said. “Jump on it, and get out of here.”

The sequence unfolded in ideal fashion for the Royals. On the first pitch Kazmir threw to Kendrys Morales, Cain jetted to third and Hosmer mirrored him safely into second. Two pitches later, Morales punched a single into right field. Oakland outfielder Josh Reddick uncorked a wild throw. Both runs scored, a callback to the club’s aggressive approach on the bases from 2014, as the Royals claimed their first lead in the fourth victory in the last five games.

The outcome dipped into jeopardy in the eighth, when Wade Davis walked the first two batters he faced. Davis rebounded to strike out Oakland slugger Stephen Vogt and ground his former teammate Ben Zobrist into an inning-ending double play. In turn, the Royals (43-28) extended their record to a season’s best 15 games above .500, with a chance to sweep Oakland on Sunday.

“We just keep plugging away,” Yost said. “If I would say I’m not excited about being 15 over, I would be lying. It’s great. But we want to continue to keep going. Keep going, and keep going.”

The Royals continue to churn through the American League in pursuit of their first Central division crown in franchise history. The team maintains a 4 ½-game lead over Minnesota. Each victory demonstrates the diversity of the talent on the roster in 2015: Sometimes they win with power. On occasion they receive a dominant outing from a starter. On Saturday, they recalled their hard-charging ways of last season.

Up until the sixth, Kansas City had barely dented Kazmir. He is a veteran southpaw, a player the club could pursue on the trade market next month. For now, he represents a vexing opponent. Through the first five frames, the only Royals run resulted from a sacrifice fly by Mike Moustakas in the third. He plated Omar Infante, who led off with a double.

Earlier this week in Seattle, Cain tweaked his hamstring straining to make a catch in center field. The training staff pronounced him healthy enough to play, but the coaches still treated him with caution. “With Cain’s legs right now, you’ve got one bullet,” Kuntz said. “You’ve got one bullet.”

But when to fire it? The team felt it was unwise to do so with Cain at first base after his sixth-inning walk. Kazmir reaches the plate at about 1.1 to 1.2 seconds with a runner at first. He feels comfortable pitching with a slide-step, which reduces opportunities for would-be base-thieves. When a runner reaches second base, the Royals knew, Kazmir slows down his delivery with a leg kick.

“Instead of taking a gamble to try to get to second base,” Kuntz said, “let’s try to wait him out.”

It took a single from Hosmer to set the scene. Kazmir raised his right leg and fired. Kuntz clocked him at 1.9 seconds. The opportunity was perfect, and the Royals duo did not hesitate. Oakland catcher Josh Phegley threw to second, where Hosmer arrived before second baseman Eric Sogard could drop a tag.

“We’re just always trying to find ways to win ballgames,” Yost said. “Sometimes you take chances. When it works out, it’s that much sweeter.”

The onus for tying the game still fell on the shoulders of Morales. The staff trusted that Morales, as a veteran, would condense his approach to fit the situation. He kept his hands under control for when Kazmir fed him a 1-1 cutter over the middle of the plate. Morales stroked the single that would eventually win the game without any excess motion.

“You’re not looking for anything in there, because obviously (Kazmir’s) not going to challenge you inside,” Hosmer said. “He’s going to throw something soft. So you’re looking that way. That’s why he’s a professional hitter. Born to hit.”

Granted a lead, Chris Young (7-3, 2.71 ERA) strode back to the mound for his final frame of work. He authored a flawless, 1-2-3 frame to end his afternoon with his most efficient inning. He allowed two runs across six innings on four hits. Only one of the runs was earned.

Responsibility for Oakland’s first run hung squarely on Young’s shoulders. He yielded a leadoff double to Sam Fuld, a thorn in Kansas City’s side since 2014, on the second pitch of the game. Next Fuld exploited one of the flaws in Young’s game, his difficulty holding runners.

The Royals presented an opening to Fuld. Mike Moustakas positioned himself well off the line. Fuld sprinted toward the bag before Young even fired home. Young caught sight of Fuld in time to fling the ball toward third. The throw was behind Moustakas, and Fuld scored.

“I’m not used to throwing to moving targets,” Young said. “It was a tough play. I didn’t set my feet. I don’t know if I had time to set my feet. He might have been safe regardless. It was just one of those plays – it’s not something you work on much.”

Kansas City tied the game in the third, but an error by Alcides Escobar allowed Oakland to pull back ahead. Young gave up a single to second baseman Eric Sogard with one out in the sixth. Sogard swiped second base soon after.

With two outs, third baseman Brett Lawrie chopped a grounder toward Escobar. His throw was wide of the bag. Hosmer lurched to grab it, but missed, and Oakland reclaimed the lead. But not for long.

After Morales came through, Yost trusted his relievers for the final nine outs. Ryan Madson gave up a leadoff walk but induced a double play immediately thereafter. Then Davis took the mound for the day’s most eventful inning.

Unable to locate his release point, Davis walked the first two batters of the frame. He fell behind Vogt, Oakland’s most dangerous hitter, with a 3-0 count. Yet inside the dugout, when Davis at least threw a strike, Yost exuded confidence.

“OK,” Yost told himself, “this inning’s over.”

The manager proved prescient. Davis froze Vogt with a 3-2 cutter for one out. Zobrist hit a grounder back to the mound, and Escobar swung the double play. Davis pumped his fist and punched his glove. For an impassive performer like Davis , the modest celebration served as the equivalent of a backflip in the end zone.

“Sometimes you get a little lucky,” Davis said. “And it excites you.”

The victory was an unconventional one, at least by the standards of this edition of the Royals. They do not run as often as last year’s model. But they are deeper, more diverse, and able to modify their talents to fit the needs of the given day.

On Saturday, to push their record to the season’s high water mark, the necessary adaptations started with the stopwatch of their first-base coach.

“You knew it was going to be something funky today,” Kuntz said. “And there was our one shot. That was Skip’s one bullet. He fired it, and it worked.”

Saturday’s box score

Royals 3, Athletics 2

Kansas City

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

A.Escobar ss

5

0

1

0

0

1

.282

Moustakas 3b

3

0

0

1

0

1

.323

L.Cain cf

3

1

1

0

1

1

.290

Hosmer 1b

4

1

2

0

0

0

.294

K.Morales dh

3

0

2

2

1

0

.292

A.Gordon lf

4

0

0

0

0

1

.275

S.Perez c

4

0

0

0

0

1

.271

Rios rf

4

0

1

0

0

1

.216

Infante 2b

4

1

1

0

0

1

.236

Totals

34

3

8

3

2

7

Oakland

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

Fuld cf

3

1

1

0

1

1

.212

Lawrie 3b

3

0

1

0

1

0

.285

Vogt dh

4

0

0

0

0

1

.298

Zobrist lf

3

0

0

0

1

1

.248

Reddick rf

4

0

0

0

0

0

.287

Phegley c

4

0

0

0

0

1

.293

I.Davis 1b

3

0

1

0

1

1

.270

Semien ss

3

0

0

0

0

1

.261

Sogard 2b

3

1

1

0

0

1

.254

Totals

30

2

4

0

4

7

Kansas City

001

002

000

3

8

2

Oakland

100

010

000

2

4

0

E: C.Young (1), A.Escobar (8). LOB: Kansas City 7, Oakland 5. 2B: L.Cain (13), Infante (16), Fuld (11), Lawrie (16), I.Davis (11). RBIs: Moustakas (31), K.Morales 2 (48). SB: L.Cain (15), Hosmer (4), Fuld (6), Sogard (5). SF: Moustakas.

Runners left in scoring position: Kansas City 3 (K.Morales, S.Perez 2); Oakland 4 (Semien, Vogt 2, Zobrist). RISP: Kansas City 1 for 8; Oakland 0 for 7. Runners moved up: A.Gordon. GIDP: Zobrist, Semien. DP: Kansas City 2 (Madson, A.Escobar, Hosmer), (W.Davis, A.Escobar, Hosmer).

Kansas City

IP

H

R

ER

W

K

ERA

C.Young W, 7-3

6

4

2

1

1

4

2.71

Madson

1

0

0

0

1

0

1.76

W.Davis

1

0

0

0

2

1

0.28

G.Holland S, 16

1

0

0

0

0

2

2.70

Oakland

IP

H

R

ER

W

K

ERA

Kazmir L, 4-5

7

7

3

3

1

6

2.79

Pomeranz

2/3

1

0

0

1

1

3.88

Scribner

11/3

0

0

0

0

0

2.97

Holds: Madson (9), W.Davis (10). Inherited runners-scored: Scribner 2-0. Balk: Kazmir.

Umpires: Home, Fieldin Culbreth; First, Jim Reynolds; Second, Manny Gonzalez; Third, Paul Schrieber. Time: 2:49. Att: 28,619.

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.

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