The streak began in the sixth inning of a 5-1 Royals victory, when James Shields left Astros outfielder Dexter Fowler numb with a 92-mph fastball at the thighs. Six batters later, third baseman Matt Dominguez stared at a 90-mph fastball at the knees, and Shields had his seventh strikeout in a row.
The wipeout stemmed from a variety of factors: The hapless Astros themselves, a free-swinging club. Shields’ impeccable control of his change-up, cutter and both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs. Shields operating in lockstep with catcher Salvador Perez.
“With that kind of combination,” Shields said, “and our defense playing the way they did today, it’s a nice win for us.’
The string of consecutive punchouts, five of them looking, nearly matched the franchise of eight set by Blake Stein in 2001. Instead, Shields settled for a 12-strikeout performance that was his best as a Royal, part of a bullying performance on Thursday night.
“After getting swept in Minnesota, it was a huge, huge series for us,” Shields said.
The club limped into Minute Maid Park three days ago. The Twins had demolished them the previous weekend. The Royals collapsed in all phases of the game, and suddenly acquired the American League’s worst record.
The Target Field nightmare included Saturday, when Minnesota ambushed Shields, and subjected him to a seven-run trouncing. Shields atoned for that disastrous outing on Thursday with his third quality start in four attempts. He toyed with the Astros for eight innings and yielded only one run.
Thus a subsequent sweep of the lowly Astros proved both restorative and necessary. The reconfigured batting order offered some pop: Perez, the new cleanup hitter, roped an RBI double. Now in the No. 6 spot, Billy Butler collected a single, walked and scored a run. Alcides Escobar slashed a crucial, two-run double.
Manager Ned Yost dislikes re-arranging his batting order. He believes tinkering with his lineup is frivolous. But he made a concession for Thursday. He removed Butler from the cleanup spot.
Butler, the slump-ridden designated hitter, had appeared in that position for the first 13 games. Yost could no longer ignore Butler’s travails. He entered Thursday with a .149 batting average. He had yet to deliver an extra-base hit. When he put the ball in play, he hit a grounder 71.8 percent of the time.
“I’ve never seen him go through anything like this before,” Yost said.
Yost suggested Butler was pressing, swinging at pitches out the strike zone and ignoring his natural tendencies. Butler could not say whether that was the case. He understood why he lost his spot in the order: He wasn’t hitting.
“All I do, I hit,” Butler said. “I don’t know how to manage a club. I felt more comfortable today. Maybe that’s what his goal was.”
When Butler came up to hit in the second, the Royals already led by a run. Houston starter Scott Feldman had just allowed a single to Alex Gordon. Butler ignored a pair of curveballs, and scalded a 1-1 cutter. The low line drive skipped past shortstop Jonathan Villar for a hit.
The third single of inning belonged to Mike Moustakas, the previous night’s hero. In this encounter with Feldman, he followed the script written in the Cactus League. Even after falling behind 0-2, he managed to muscle an RBI single into center field.
Gordon and Butler teamed up to spark another rally in the fourth. Gordon blooped a single. Butler worked a walk. Both had moved into scoring position by the time shortstop Alcides Escobar came to bat. Escobar stayed back on a curveball from Feldman and slashed a two-out, two-run double in the right-center gap.
Perez added his RBI double in the fifth. His liner slipped beneath the glove of center fielder Dexter Fowler, and Nori Aoki loped home for his second run of the day. Eric Hosmer chugged around the bases from first, but was thrown out at the plate.
Soon after, Shields overwhelmed his opponents. After Fowler struck out, George Springer swung over a change-up and Jason Castro was frozen by a cutter. Shields fanned the side in the seventh. By that point, he was aware of his accomplishment, even if he felt unimpressed.
Shields does not glorify strikeouts. He will take outs in any form. He picked up 24 on Thursday — 12 by strikeout.
“He was on the attack,” Yost said, “all night.”