Royals find way to keep rolling with punches
KANSAS CITY -- The Royals are getting every other team's best game, best shot, best effort.
This is part of the payoff for winning a pennant. The degree of difficulty rises as the opponents' motivation level climbs.
So the Royals have to dig deep for victories, just as they did in Friday night's 3-2 walk-off win in the 10th inning at Kauffman Stadium. They had lost four straight games against two teams -- the Astros and Twins -- who were eager to prove that their newfound status as contenders was no fluke.
The Royals overcame a baserunning gaffe that cost them a golden chance at victory in the ninth inning. They overcame the fact that they could only score one run in six innings against Twins starter Tommy Milone. They won when Lorenzo Cain scored on a magnificent headfirst slide that narrowly avoided the tag of Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki.
Instead of a five-game losing streak, the Royals had their first walk-off victory of the season, achieved in front of a full house of 38,868 at Kauffman Stadium. Frustration was transformed into elation.
"We definitely needed this win," Cain said. "We lost four in a row and it was tough to go through. But at the same time, we continued to fight and found a way to get it done."
The opposition, meanwhile, is in town on a mission. The second-place Twins were 3-6 against the first-place Royals before this series between American League Central rivals and had been swept by Kansas City in a three-game set at Target Field.
Yes, each regular-season game of 162 counts the same. But there are games with more meaning than others.
"We're playing the Kansas City Royals, they're in first place, they may be the best team in our league," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "It's a chance for us to compete on the road and hopefully we'll step up.
"I think everyone is aware of the steps that you have to take to be taken seriously. You have to be able to compete on the road against the teams that are seen as the better teams in the game, particularly in your own division.
"You don't want to make too much of it in July, but you saw the last series we played against them in Minnesota, we didn't go out there and play our game particularly well. And so I think that there's a collective effort, led by guys like Torii [Hunter] and Joe [Mauer] that is let's go out there and compete."
On Thursday night, the Twins got eight shutout innings from Kyle Gibson, who is emerging as a mainstay of the rotation. The Royals didn't get any breaks in the second game, either. Milone had a 2.03 ERA in June.
"Milone, his last six starts have been unbelievable," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "[Hitting coach] Dale Sveum watches video of the opposing pitchers' starts and he said [Milone's] last six or seven starts, he looks like Tom Glavine."
In the last four games, the Royals had been shut out twice and had scored only six runs. But they had three masterful starts pitched against them.
"We've faced some pretty good pitching performances here the last couple of days," Yost said. "You know, you can read into it a little too much when you're facing really good pitching because really good pitching will shut down good hitting. We all know we have a good-hitting club."
The Royals didn't exactly light up the scoreboard on Friday night, either, but a determined starting performance from Jeremy Guthrie, the usual spotless relief pitching, and Cain's clutch hitting and speed in the 10th was enough for a victory.
The Royals can expect to be getting the absolute best opponents have to offer the rest of the season. At times, there might be even additional motivation beyond beating the defending AL champions.
"I sensed it really the other night in Houston when we were facing Dallas Keuchel, you know, that he was auditioning for a spot in the All-Star Game or even a start," said Yost, who is the AL All-Star manager this year. He then added the punch line: "I thought to myself: 'OK, if he pitches really good for five innings and then gives it up, then I might consider it.'
"But he didn't do that. He pitched good the whole dad gum game. So I'll have to second-think that possibility."
In that game on Tuesday night, Keuchel pitched eight shutout innings, with no walks and seven strikeouts. The Astros won, 4-0.
Royals' opponents will not lack for motivation at any point this season. But as Friday night's game indicated, even in difficult circumstances, they will not be easily beaten.