Mike Jirschele trained his eyes into left field, hesitating for the briefest of moments. The Royals had installed him as their third-base coach five days before, and here was his first moment inside the fires of the ninth inning. As Omar Infante headed for third, Jirschele made his decision, wheeling his arm, paving the way for the go-ahead run in Tuesday’s wild, 8-7 victory over the Cardinals.
“We had to take a chance right there,” Jirschele said.
Their options were limited. To weather a combustion by James Shields, manager Ned Yost had unloaded his bullpen, and “we were out of pitching” if the game went into extra innings, he said. Infante scored standing up, the final tally on a road trip that saw the offense come to life and the Royals go 4-2 against a pair of playoff contenders.
The winning RBI belonged to Eric Hosmer, who had spent the previous three weeks with his bat encased in ice. He flicked an opposite-field single off St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal to snap the tie. It was his second hit of the evening, as the Royals (28-30) collected their second-consecutive victory over their cross-state rivals.
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“We just finally got some timely hitting,” Hosmer said.
“(The offense) looks a little better than it has been,” said Alex Gordon, who launched a three-run homer in a six-run flurry in the fifth. “We’ll take that as a plus.”
The team weathered a series of haymakers from the defending National League champs, and survived despite an alarming effort from their best starter. A trio of singles — including an infield hit by Billy Butler and an RBI bloop by Alcides Escobar — tied the game in the eighth. The late-game flurry removed some responsibility of the shoulders of James Shields, who has been quite ineffective in the past two weeks.
Caught in a three-start spiral, Shields resembled a defeated man at times on Tuesday, a rare pose for a pitcher of his pedigree. In 5 1/3 innings, he surrendered seven runs, dumped his team in an early hole, failed to protect a two-run lead later and lacked his usual command.
“I was just kind of all over the place,” said Shields, who walked four batters and struck out one.
For the Royals, a club fighting to keep their heads above the choppy waters of .500 baseball, Shields’ recent funk only compounds matters. He allowed six runs in his last outing. After Tuesday’s performance, he has now given up 17 runs in his three starts, which translates to a 7.36 ERA.
Shields pinpointed “three, crucial bad pitches” that gnawed at him. The first was a hanging changeup to Kolten Wong in the second inning. Wong, a 23-year-old second baseman, had not homered in 198 plate appearances. He launched a grand slam on his 199th try.
The second pitch was a belt-high cutter to shortstop Jhonny Peralta in the fifth. A double rang down the third-base line, past a diving Mike Moustakas, to tie the game.
The last mistake might have been the most painful. It was another misplaced cutter. Peter Bourjos, a light-hitting outfielder, cracked a solo homer for St. Louis’ seventh run. Shields departed soon after, unable to take joy in his useful hitting. He roped an RBI double in the fifth, the first of his career, and finished with two hits. But he still exited in line for a loss.
“The team did good battling back,” Shields said. “The last couple starts, I haven’t been on my game. And the team’s picked me up. It’s been great to see.”
The Royals’ second comeback of the night fomented in the eighth. After a one-out single by Salvador Perez, an unlikely chain of events occurred. Called in to pinch hit, Billy Butler chopped a grounder deep to Wong’s left, which was recorded an infield single. Yost inserted pitcher Jeremy Guthrie to pinch-run for Butler.
So Guthrie had an excellent view of Alcides Escobar’s moment. He had already provided an RBI double to spark the fifth-inning scoring. This time he floated a single over Wong’s head, a difficult prospect against side-arming reliever Pat Neshek, who entered the game with a 0.73 ERA.
An extra-innings affair portended doom for the Royals. Yost had few choices left. Thus a one-out double by Infante thrilled him. When Hosmer sprayed his single to left, Yost never doubted Jirschele would choose the aggressive path.
When it was over, as a small pack of reporters crowded around his office, Yost took a moment to exhale.
“That was a tough one, man,” Yost said. “That was a tough one. That was one of those grinder games, where you’re grinding right from the get-go.”
And his team, he said, “they grinded their way right to a win. So it was a great one all the way around.”
To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.