If “September baseball is playoff baseball,” as Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer puts it, that wasn’t going to be reflected in a series with free-falling Texas.
Sweeping the Rangers earlier this week was more a prerequisite than a proving ground.
Friday night at Yankee Stadium was another matter.
The opener of a pivotal six-game road trip was no night for the squeamish or faint of heart:
The 1-0 Royals victory came only after a patented manufactured run, a stellar pitching performance from starter James Shields and the startling use of Wade Davis to pitch the ninth inning.
By the time it was revealed that closer Greg Holland had been held out as a precaution because of tightness in his right pitching triceps, no doubt a few agitated fans were freaking out.
Chances are it’s going to feel like that a lot the next few weeks.
But that wasn’t how it felt from the apparently unfazed inside looking out.
“Absolutely electric,” Shield called the night.
And when it was all in jeopardy in the scrambled ninth, manager Ned Yost thought to himself, “Boy, where else would I rather be in this world?”
In such fraught circumstances for frayed observers, the first question for Yost afterward was about the matter of Holland and Davis (who, in fact, struck out both batters he faced and made his 31st straight appearance without allowing a run even as he was securing his first career save).
All that commotion was understandable, but it distracted from the story of the night: the dominance of Shields when the first-place Royals required a statement start to the trip for three games here before three at Detroit.
Two starts after Shields was scorched by the Yankees for six runs in an 8-1 loss, he allowed just two hits and one hit batsman into the ninth inning.
He left in favor of Davis following Derek Jeter’s one-out single — after an outing Yost called “surgical,” an outing that pitching coach Dave Eiland said he essentially could see coming before the game.
Watching him warm up, Eiland thought, “He’s got it. He’s there tonight.”
And so Shields continued to bring the Royals along with him as the template-setting No. 1 starter.
Everything that happens in the rotation tends to cascade down from his game or his example.
This is why the Royals would make any maneuver they had to for Shields to start a wild-card playoff game and why they would seek to maximize his starts in any series.
This was no true playoff game, of course. But with 36,284 in the stands and the Yankees scratching to get back into contention and coming off a dramatic win Thursday, the atmosphere was about as charged as one.
Only it will feel all the more so in Detroit next week … and so on. Each tier has its own challenges, but each phase is a preamble to the next, too.
Shields has been part of this sort of scene before, but he’s one of the few Royals who have.
His poise is no assurance others will have the same composure, but it’s a fine place to start … especially with every win a grind.
“It’s another day off the schedule,” Yost said, “with a ‘W’ behind it.”
That in itself says plenty about the grueling win.
Because the Royals continue to do this the hard way, winning four straight games now but only scoring a total of 11 runs to do it.
Continuing to win with the meager offense they are generating hinges on the pitching.
So simply put, if the Royals didn’t get what Shields gave them on Friday this series would look a lot less bright.
“The good news is we’re winning ball games the last couple of games, and we’re not really hitting on all cylinders,” Shields said. “We’re pitching our butts off, and I think as long as we do that the rest of the season we’re going to win a lot of ball games.”
That may be the only way, of course, and there’s no assurance that can hold up.
Just the same, Eiland sees it the other way around.
The starters have been “phenomenal” all season, he said. That’s great and all, but …
“They have to be even better than they’ve been all year, and I’ve … challenged them in that regard,” he said. “ ‘We’re going to go as far as you take us.’ And they’ve stepped up.”
No one more than Shields, who lived up to the “Big Game James” moniker in a way the Royals had to have Friday to establish some order in an otherwise anxiety-filled night.