Nori Aoki spread his arms and waited. At 11:34 p.m., four hours and 23 minutes after an interminable, preposterous night at the ballpark began, the Royals rushed to greet him in the dirt near second base.
Aoki cracked a walkoff single in the bottom of the fourteenth inning on Thursday, plating Lorenzo Cain to usher his club to a 2-1 victory over the Indians. On Wednesday in Chicago, Aoki produced the hit that led to Mike Moustakas’ game-winning slide at home plate. A day later, he actually received credit for the game-winning RBI.
“It’s one of the best feelings,” Aoki said. “Hopefully we have more of those moments the rest of the season.”
It was a taxing, bruising evening for the Royals, who needed seven pitchers to hold down the Indians. Their own offense output was sad. The final result was poignant. The rest of the night was stocked with oddities.
Aoki played designated hitter for the first time in his big-league career. The Royals (51-50) waited until their 20th at-bat of the game to notch their first hit. Moustakas looped a Little League homer. Greg Holland blew his second save in 28 tries. Raul Ibanez turned a double play at first base.
“How about that?” Moustakas said. He was talking about his own moment in the sun, but the message applied to the entire evening.
The evening’s first gift arrived with one out in the eighth inning, as Moustakas faced Indians starter Corey Kluber. Moustakas flicked a sinking liner into left field. No conventional outcome would follow.
Sprinting toward the line, Ryan Raburn slid to make the catch. The ball clacked off his wrist. It was ruled a double, the first time all evening a Royal graced second base with his presence. What followed was truly remarkable.
Raburn picked up the ball and spun to throw it to the relay man. His toss spiked into the outfield grass. It dribbled toward center field.
“As soon as I saw the ball hit the ground, I took off again,” Moustakas said. “I didn’t really see what was going on behind me.”
The dugout emptied to greet him after he crossed the plate. Their happiness would not last long. Pitching in his third consecutive game, Holland operated without his customary command. He yielded a leadoff walk and a two-out, game-tying single to catcher Yan Gomes.
The blown save forced manager Ned Yost to empty his bullpen. He utilized Francisley Bueno, Jason Frasor, Scott Downs and Aaron Crow before Aoki finally sent everyone home. He even burned Kelvin Herrera, his only other reliever, by asking him to warm up twice without being used.
“We went through so much pitching tonight,” Yost said. “You go through that much pitching and lose a ballgame? It’s a little disheartening.”
With Moustakas’ run, the messiest of plays upended a game marked by tidiness. A runner did not reach safely until the fifth inning. A Royal did not reach until Omar Infante’s seventh-inning single. Danny Duffy stymied the Indians across seven spotless innings.
“I actually thought we had a chance to finish this game before it got dark,” Yost said.
Only Raburn could aid the Royals against Kluber in his nine innings. He eschews nuance for brute force. He batters hitters with bowling-ball sinkers and steep-diving curveballs. He was the exact opposite of a welcome sight after Kansas City’s taxing week on the road.
The six-day trip frazzled the team. They escaped with victories on the final two days, but the preceding four losses still altered the immediate narrative. A discussion of Ned Yost’s job security replaced questions about the playoff chase. Seven losses in eight games will do that to a season.
So a wounded club returned to Kauffman Stadium. The burden for sustaining any momentum from the previous two games fell to Duffy.
The circumstances were familiar. He exists in a world without run support. His 2.47 ERA is the lowest in the starting rotation. Yet he leads the team with 10 losses.
The first frame offered a harbinger of the night’s upcoming stinginess. With two outs in the first, Jarrod Dyson robbed All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley with a horizontal dive to snag a potential extra-base hit. Duffy tipped his cap. As Dyson jogged toward the dugout, a crowd of Duffy, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain waited to salute him.
The second inning lasted five pitches, which netted three flyouts. The third allowed him to devastate with his slider. Gomes swung through one for Duffy’s second strikeout of the day. Duffy pumped one for a called strike to shortstop Jose Ramirez, tossed another upon which Ramirez and ended the at-bat with a 94-mph fastball inside.
In Kluber, he met a formidable match. Kluber stripped the Royals and sold them for parts during a meeting earlier this month, and looked poised to repeat the performance. He struck out five of the first nine batters he faced.
“He’s been the best pitcher I’ve seen this year,” said Alex Gordon, who went 0-for-5.
At last, in the fifth inning, a batter broke through. It was Carlos Santana, the Indians catcher turned third baseman turned first baseman. He whacked a fastball into left field. Duffy walked the next batter.
What came next offered a hint at his evolution. Duffy steadied himself. Nick Swisher tapped into a forceout at third. Gomes once again missed a slider. Duffy ramped his fastball up to 96 mph to fan third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall.
His pace slackened in the sixth. Duffy issued a two-out walk to former teammate Mike Aviles. He was his third baserunner of the day. Duffy became preoccupied with Aviles’ presence on first, throwing over there once, twice, three times. At last, Duffy challenged Michael Brantley with a full-count fastball, and Brantley rolled a grounder to first.
The tension heightened as Kluber took the mound for the seventh. His teammates had not aided him, but history still stood just nine outs away. He inched one out closer before Infante stepped in.
Infante fouled off a 93-mph sinker, and passed on an outside curveball. At 1-1, Kluber zipped another sinker, this one over the heart of the plate. Infante rifled it back up the middle. The crowd stirred to its feet, relieved it would not witness ignominious history.
And what happened next?
Alex Gordon struck out. Infante was caught trying to steal second on the throw. And the bases were empty once more – and the game was only halfway done.
Seven innings later, Cain stroked a single up the middle. He gambled to steal second. When Aoki dropped his single into left, Cain jetted around third and slid past the plate. He completed something of a barrel roll and dove back to touch it. Four hours and 23 minutes after the night started, it was over.
“For Nori to drive me in there, that was huge,” Cain said. “After 14 innings, everyone was ready to get out of here.”
To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.