The thought flashed in Ned Yost’s mind as the baseball rolled across the infield: “OK, that’s a double play.”
Moments before the last at-bat of a 5-4 victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Yost considered the ripple effects of catcher Salvador Perez’s groundball, which was scooped by Los Angeles shortstop Erick Aybar. Yost had expended his finest relievers. His hitters had slumbered through the majority of the afternoon. A hellish homestand was headed into extra innings on its final day.
Then, a funny thing happened, the sort of occurrence this club had pined for these last nine games at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals caught a break. Second baseman Howie Kendrick dropped the throw.
“When Howie missed the ball, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. We’ve got a shot here,’” Yost said.
The team did not wait long. Omar Infante singled to left score Alex Gordon. The Royals captured their first walkoff victory of the season, and basked in a result that allowed them to escape their own ballpark with peace of mind. The Royals managed three victories in nine games on during this stint at home, a skid that cost them their lead in the American League Central.
On Sunday, Lorenzo Cain tied a career-high with four hits, including three doubles, and helped his team capitalize on a fourth-inning meltdown from Los Angeles starter C.J. Wilson. Jeremy Guthrie coughed up a one-run lead by allowing his second solo home run of the game in the sixth. Betrayed by his defense in the early going, Guthrie still logged 62/3 solid innings.
“It was nice to win one of these, finally,” Guthrie said. “It feels like the whole homestand has been close games and late losses. So to get a late win is a huge boost.”
Sunday marked the middle point of the season. After 81 games, the Royals are three games above .500, and still treading water as they fly to Minneapolis for a nine-game road trip starting Monday. On the road, perhaps they can recapture the form that so captivated observers earlier this month.
On the morning of June 19, the Royals stood at the summit of the American League Central. They led the Detroit Tigers by a game and a half. They had won 10 in a row, drubbed Detroit in their own ballpark and announced themselves as contenders.
How quickly the tides turn, even if “it seems like a year ago we came home,” Yost said. As the Royals blundered at home, the Tigers stabilized. Detroit dashed to seven consecutive victories and reclaimed their lead. Inside his office on Sunday morning, Yost shrugged his shoulders at the reversal.
“It’s a long season,” Yost said. “You can’t get frustrated. I know you guys want to whip everybody up into a frenzy,” and here he slapped his hands across his face, and lightened the timbre of his voice, “and say ‘Oh, we’re so frustrated!’ No. It doesn’t work like that.”
For optimists, it was possible to pinpoint positives. The team received a pair of quality starts during the Seattle sweep. The club stood toe-to-toe during two losses with the Dodgers. During these nine games, Yost explained, his team lacked luck. They faced tough competition. They “haven’t caught breaks,” he said. The results did not correlate with the quality of their play.
“It’s not like we’re fumbling all over ourselves,” he said.
He spoke too soon. The initial performance on Sunday indicated otherwise. First, Guthrie surrendered a leadoff homer to Kole Calhoun. With a man on first, Aybar lifted a fly into right center.
From his position in the corner, Cain tracked the baseball and called off Jarrod Dyson in center. At the last moment, though, Dyson flashed in his vision. He backed off and let the ball fall. “Completely my fault,” Cain said. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
A rare defensive misplay by Eric Hosmer led to another run in the third. But in the fourth inning, Wilson tossed them a lifeline in the form of an 84-mph slider. The pitch hit Salvador Perez in the foot. Infante doubled and a single by Danny Valencia granted the Royals their first run. Three batters later, Cain stroked of the day to tie the game.
The go-ahead run felt like anticlimax. Manager Mike Scioscia ordered Wilson to intentionally walk Billy Butler. The move backfired. No longer could Wilson locate the strike zone, and Gordon walked on four pitches to put the Royals ahead.
They would regret not sustaining their rush. Perez popped up to end the fourth. With two on and two out in the fifth, Alcides Escobar was picked off by reliever Cory Rasmus. The team could have used those extra runs, for in the sixth, Erick Aybar tied the game by parking a 2-0 fastball from Guthrie in the Angels bullpen.
As the innings continued, Yost strategized on how to break the deadlock. He used Kelvin Herrera to defuse a bases-loaded emergency in the seventh. Wade Davis and Greg Holland handled the next two frames. When Perez grounded the ball toward Aybar in the ninth, Yost worried about the Angels feasting on the softer underbelly of his team’s bullpen.
Instead, the Royals got lucky. Kendrick made a mistake. Infante came through. This brutal stretch at home was over.
“A huge knock,” Cain said. “A big win for us. We’ve got to keep the momentum going.”