Put it in the books. The Royals closed their best season in 24 years Sunday afternoon with a 4-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.
All-Star catcher Salvy Perez drew a first career start at first base — and, OK, that’s going to take some work — but one reason the Royals put him there is to seek additional ways to keep his bat in the lineup.
That bat on Sunday delivered three hits, including a two-run homer that opened the scoring. Putting Perez at first base opened a spot at catcher for Brett Hayes, who also hit a two-run homer.
“I told you before, we’re going to play hard through the last day of the season,” Perez said. “We’re going play hard for 27 outs.”
It took all 27 outs because the White Sox made things interesting at the end before Greg Holland dropped the hammer one final time in his record-breaking season.
We’ll get to that.
The homers by Perez and Hayes supported a strong outing by veteran lefty Bruce Chen, a pending free agent who worked into the seventh inning before Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar and Holland closed out the season.
“Hopefully, I can come back,” Chen said. “I know the fans had a blast this year. They supported us. They were great, and they want to win. I feel like the city is ready to win, and I feel this team is step it up.”
Holland wobbled through the ninth inning for his 47th save, which extended his club record. The White Sox loaded the bases with one out before Holland struck out Gordon Beckham and Marcus Semien.
Those two strikeouts enabled Holland to tie the franchise record of 103 strikeouts by a reliever in a season, which Jim York set in 1971.
“It’s just one of those things,” said Holland, who finished with a 1.21 ERA in his 68 appearances. “You can’t always go in there and get three quick outs. I would have taken three line drives there …
“Well, I probably got three line drives, but they weren’t at people.”
It worked out. It usually does with Holland, who had just one blown save in his last 41 opportunities.
Both homers followed walks by Chicago starter Jose Quintana, who fell to 9-7. Perez went deep in the fourth, while Hayes hit his first big-league homer in more than two years in the seventh.
That was enough for the Royals to end the season at 86-76 — a 14-victory improvement over last season and their best record since finishing 92-70 in 1989.
“It’s a good start,” manager Ned Yost said. “I think we’re making progress as an organization. Ten games over .500. It’s a significant first step. Now, we need to build on that.”
Chen carried a 4-1 lead into the seventh behind those two-run homers and got two quick outs before losing the strike zone. Eight straight balls brought the tying run to the plate — and Herrera into the game.
Herrera ended the inning by retiring Semien on a fielder’s-choice grounder to short. That sent Chen, 9-4, into free-agency with a line of one run and four hits in 6 2/3 innings. He closed the season with a 3.27 ERA.
“I’m very happy that once the team needed me to step into the starting rotation,” Chen said, “I was able to do the job. Not only do the job but do it the best I could. I feel I helped the team in the second half.
“I felt I was a major contributor to a team making a run at the playoffs, and it was fun. I think when you’re in the race, you play better. That’s what we want to do next year, be in the race and play better.”
The Royals started Perez, their All-Star catcher, at first base to get a real-speed look at whether that can be an occasional future option to provide a break from the rigors of his regular duty while keeping him in the lineup.
It didn’t look so good in the third inning when he absolutely whiffed on Semien’s leadoff pop. It was a routine play, but Perez turned, twisted … and the ball fell for an error.
“It’s so different between a pop-up behind home plate and a pop-up to first base,” he said. “And the wind today was a little crazy.”
The mistake didn’t hurt because Semien tried to advance to second on Alejandro’s De Aza’s one-out fly to left. That resulted in an inning-ending double play: David Lough to shortstop Pedro Ciriaco to second baseman Johnny Giavotella.
Giavotella then started the fourth with a walk, and Perez followed by crushing a first-pitch change-up from Quintana for a 393-foot homer to left and a 2-0 lead.
The White Sox immediately got one run back — their only run of the day — when Ramirez sent Chen’s first pitch in the bottom of the inning over the left-field wall.
Hayes’ homer came after Justin Maxwell worked back from an 0-2 hole against Quintana for a one-out walk in the seventh. Hayes followed by driving a 0-1 curve over the left-field wall.
“I’ve got nothing for you,” Hayes laughed. “I swung and hit it, and it went out.”
It was his first homer in 134 at-bats in the big leagues dating to Sept. 11, 2011, for the Marlins against Atlanta in Miami, although he had 17 homers in 275 at-bats this season at Class AAA Omaha.
Hayes’ drive made it 4-1, which is how it ended — the game and the season. Now, it’s 4 1/2 months until spring training opens for the 2014 season. Let the countdown start.
“It’s a big thing that we won 14 more games than last season,” Perez said. “We’re going to work hard when we come to spring training because we want to go to the playoffs next year.”