KANSAS CITY -- Craig Kimbrel had only pitched once in the seventh inning during the entire 2021 season prior to a 10-7 victory for the White Sox over the Royals Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium.
In fact, the closer with 372 career saves had 11 career seventh-inning appearances in total. But it’s all about winning for Kimbrel and White Sox manager Tony La Russa, and with Salvador Perez looming in the seventh, that’s the spot where Kimbrel was needed.
“Obviously, two outs and nobody on, if somebody gets on base, Perez is up and Craig had to be the guy to face him,” La Russa said. “You counted up and knew that Perez was [hitting] fourth. He was ready to pitch in the seventh. That was the inning of decision.”
Kimbrel fanned Sebastian Rivero and Whit Merrifield to open the frame, but Nicky Lopez’s checked-swing single to left brought Perez to the plate as the tying run in a 9-7 game. Perez already had gone deep off Reynaldo López and Michael Kopech, giving him 40 home runs, and his five RBIs brought his total to 99 overall.
But Kimbrel won this battle. He threw Perez one fastball among the five pitches and no pitches within the strike zone, getting Perez to chase three outside to end the threat.
“I faced him a few times, and he tries to go a lot of fastballs. Today, he changed the plan,” Perez said. “I went in looking for fastballs, and maybe I should be a little bit more patient. But he’s one of the best.
“I’ve never seen a curveball or slider like that. It’s super hard, too. It comes in and looks like a fastball, and in the last moment, boom, drops. He’s one of the best closers in the game. I tried to do my job, he tried to do his job. Tonight, he wins.”
This contest did not look as if it would have late theater, as La Russa mentioned, at least based on the early results. Not when the White Sox scored six runs in the first three innings. Not when they chased starter Daniel Lynch after 2 2/3 innings. Not when Luis Robert and Yasmani Grandal combined for 877 feet of home run power in the first inning alone.
With the Royals having forged a 9-9 record this season against the American League Central leaders, they were not about to go quietly. But the White Sox seemed to have an answer every time Kansas City came close.
“To me that was one of our more impressive games in that way,” La Russa said. “They had so much momentum with those two clutch home runs. But our guys kept cranking out at-bats. The kind of guts they’ve shown all season. They don’t get discouraged. They keep playing. It’s a championship trait. Fun to watch it.”
“We're definitely hunting out there, making sure that whenever we get into a situation, we keep riding that wave as high as we can, so we can make the inning as long as we can,” Grandal said. “We've seen that every time we do that, good things happen.”
Robert matched a career high with four hits (previously Aug. 1, 2020, at Kauffman), including the Statcast-projected 452-foot home run off Lynch. Grandal finished 3-for-3 with one walk and four RBIs. Since his return from an injury rehab assignment on Aug. 27, Grandal is 12-for-22 with five homers, 15 RBIs, eight runs scored, six walks and two strikeouts in seven games. José Abreu knocked out his 500th and 501st career extra-base hits among his three hits.
López started and allowed three runs in four innings, having his streak of 25 straight batters retired ended by a one-out walk issued to Carlos Santana in the second. The White Sox (79-57) reduced their magic number to 18 to clinch their first division title since 2008 with 26 games to play.
They accomplished Saturday’s success via 15 hits, and with great relief as the Royals grew close. Aaron Bummer threw just seven pitches in a perfect eighth, while Liam Hendriks threw 11 for his 32nd save. It was the Kimbrel/Perez battle setting the stage.
“That was a hard game, man,” said La Russa with a laugh.
“We made our pitches the first time through. Hung one the second time, he took us deep. And then made a really good pitch the third time through and he took us deep, so we were going to make sure he wasn't going to beat us,” said Grandal of Perez. “We used his aggressiveness to get him out and it was a huge out. But there was no doubt we were being careful in the situation.”