Royals play to win in Wild finish with Tigers
Relay nails Fielder at plate for final out; KC stays 3 1/2 back in WC
DETROIT -- Ervin Santana threw some great pitches for the Royals. So did Will Smith, so did Luke Hochevar, so did Greg Holland.
Yet the best two strikes thrown in Kansas City's heart-thumping 1-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night were by left fielder Alex Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar. On the receiving end was catcher Salvador Perez.
As a result, the Royals' Wild Card dreams gained fresh life.
"This was a huge win for us," manager Ned Yost said. "We had to have this win tonight. We haven't had a ballgame all year where we had to win. Tonight was it. We had to win this ballgame. And the manner and fashion in which we won it was pretty exciting."
Was it ever.
Santana, the starter, and relievers Smith and Hochevar had carried the one-run lead to Holland, the closer. He began the ninth by walking the dangerous Prince Fielder, but then got two outs with Fielder still moored at first base. Omar Infante sent the sellout crowd of 41,841 into full-throated roar with a line drive down the left-field line.
"I made a bad pitch," Holland said. "My first instinct was to just tell the ball to get down because I could've lived with a tie there. You don't ever want to blow a save, but giving up one to tie the game is better than the ball going over the fence."
It didn't go over the fence, but it took one bounce and hit the wall, then rebounded to Gordon. Meantime, Fielder was churning around the bases with the potential tying run.
"Honestly, I didn't think we had a chance because Prince was already halfway to third," Holland said. "But I mean Gordo and Esky got two of the best arms in the league at their positions -- if not the best."
Gordon stayed calm and methodical.
"I knew on a ball down the line there was going to be a close play at home," Gordon said. "You just try not to rush yourself, make sure you get it cleanly, get a good throw. Usually when you try to rush yourself, that's when you bobble it or throw it in the ground."
Gordon did neither and got a strong throw off to his relay man, Escobar.
"When Esky threw it, I thought it was going to hit Prince in the back and then it kind of tailed away from him," Gordon said. "What a play."
Especially since catcher Perez momentarily lost sight of the ball behind the bulky Fielder.
"I didn't see the ball for like two seconds," Perez said. "I stayed in front of home plate and the ball was behind him so I had to go to one side and I didn't see the ball, so I just guessed that the ball was going to be right there."
Good guess. Perez caught the one-bounce throw and swept a tag into the sliding Fielder.
"I give all the credit to Salvy because that was a difficult throw," Escobar said. "I threw to the other side and the runner blocked it. Salvy did a real really good job to catch the ball on a really short bounce and tag the runner."
Tigers manager Jim Leyland didn't use a pinch-runner for Fielder because he wanted his big bat in the lineup in case of a tie game. And Leyland had no problem with third-base coach Tom Brookens waving the big guy home.
"You're not going to get many hits off that guy [Holland] so you can get stranded very easily with that guy pitching," Leyland said. "If you think you've got a good chance, you've got to take that chance whether it's one out or two outs. With two outs it's a no brainer, Brookie made the right call without question."
Out. Game over. The Royals had won on a night that two of the teams in front of them in a battle for the second Wild Card spot, New York and Baltimore, had lost. Both Cleveland and Tampa Bay, the current front-runner, won, to leave the Royals 3 1/2 back in the standings.
Gordon scored the game's only run after ambushing right-hander Doug Fister's first pitch of the game for a single to right field. A line drive by Emilio Bonifacio was ruled foul although the Royals contended that the ball touched first baseman Fielder's glove in fair territory before curving foul.
Bonifacio struck out before Eric Hosmer belted a run-scoring triple to deep right-center field. That's how it stayed when Hosmer was thrown out at the plate, trying to score on Billy Butler's bouncer to third baseman Miguel Cabrera.
Santana, who had gone seven straight starts without a victory, seems to have a way with the Tigers. The only other time that Santana faced the Tigers this season, he held them to two hits in 7 1/3 innings of Kansas City's 1-0 victory as the All-Star break ended. That win launched the Royals' second-half surge that has carried them into the Wild Card race.
Santana is now 8-3 in 13 career starts against Detroit.
This time he survived Andy Dirks' line drive off his pitching hand in the second inning and worked his way through 6 2/3 shutout innings.
"I thought Ervin did an awesome job," Yost said. "Anytime you can hold that lineup to no runs it's a phenomenal job."
The Tigers got back-to-back one-out singles by Victor Martinez and Dirks in the seventh. Escobar made a brilliant backhand stab of Infante's slow bouncer and threw him out. With both runners in scoring position, Santana was pulled in favor of left-hander Will Smith. The Tigers countered by sending right-handed-hitting Nick Castellanos to bat for Alex Avila, but he flied out.
"They're a tough team to beat and I just had everything under control tonight," Santana said. "It was a great pitching matchup."
Hochevar pitched his way past Torii Hunter's two-out double in the eighth and handed the game to Holland, who got his 43rd save. Thanks to a couple of strikes thrown by Gordon and Escobar and a pristine pick by Perez.
Yost's reaction, as he told it, was to clutch his chest and do his best imitation of cantankerous Fred's faking a heart attack on the TV comedy "Sanford and Son."
"All could think of was, 'Elizabeth, I'm coming, honey! I'm coming. Get ready for me!' "Yost said.
When you win, the laughs keep coming.