Salvador Perez clapped his hands and pumped his fist as he rounded first base. With one swing of the bat, over a week’s worth of frustration and defeat were wiped clean, and a sigh of relief was felt across the Royals’ dugout in Chicago and fans keeping watch throughout Kansas City and wherever else they tune in from.
The Royals snapped an 11-game losing streak with a 6-2 win over the White Sox in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader at Guaranteed Rate Field.
“Couldn’t have been more timely,” manager Mike Matheny said in between games.
They did it with a well-rounded performance from all facets of the team, which hadn’t happened between May 2-13. Michael A. Taylor gave the Royals the lead with a two-run home run, his first since April 3, in the second inning, shortly after Hunter Dozier exited following a collision. Then Perez launched his in the third after Carlos Santana walked and Andrew Benintendi singled.
Both homers were opposite-field shots and featured simplified swings against White Sox starter Lucas Giolito -- exactly the kind of swings Matheny has wanted to see as the Royals battled through the skid. In the seventh, shortstop Nicky Lopez’s stolen base turned into a run on Santana’s single that beat the shift and squeaked through the infield for an insurance run.
“We needed some confidence, no matter how much we know our guys believe in themselves, you just need some of that positive reinforcement by good things happening,” Matheny said. “Michael just trusted himself. Amazing the power he has even when he’s not trying. … And then Salvy just continues to step up big in big situations.”
Brad Keller, the Royals’ Opening Day starter who has struggled mightily to open the season, did everything he needed to do to help stop the streak. Keller allowed two runs in five innings, and although he had a 36-pitch first inning, he settled down to keep the White Sox off balance with seven strikeouts. His two biggest innings were the second and third after the Royals took the lead and added on, and he was able to have two shutdown innings.
“I felt like that was really encouraging to the whole team,” Keller said. “Five runs in two innings, just to go up there and put up two zeroes, that was my only focus. I don’t care how it happened, I just had to put up a zero.”
After making an adjustment with his slider, Keller relied on his “bread and butter” pitch Friday more than he has all season, throwing it 33 percent of the time. He got to the basics of what has made him successful in the past. Keller said he and the Royals starters had a meeting after they were swept by the White Sox last weekend about not pressing, even though they all want to be the stopper that the Royals needed.
“We definitely want to be that guy to go out there and put an end to it and throw up zeroes,” Keller said. “But we had a meeting as a staff to say, ‘Don’t do too much.’ It’s almost like the less we do, the better we are for it. That was our mentality. Just don’t press.”
The right-hander was picked up by his defense, too. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Tim Anderson led off with a single, and Adam Eaton grounded sharply to second base. But Whit Merrifield and Lopez were ready to turn the crucial double play.
“Those have been ones that have been slipping away,” Matheny said. “... As you’re watching the runner get down first base, you’re thinking that it might not happen, and they’re doing a great job getting the ball in and out of the glove. Just shows what kind of athletes we have in the middle of the field.”
Perhaps the biggest fist pump of the day came after that play, from Matheny in the dugout as he watched Lopez’s throw beat out Eaton at first base. Matheny, an intense competitor and leader of this club, has worn most of the losses while also maintaining positivity and belief in his roster -- belief that hasn’t waned from the very first day of Spring Training. He’s talked often throughout the stretch about staying the course and about how that’s sometimes harder said than done when the losses keep compounding despite the preparation and hard work his players and coaching staff put in.
The Royals’ turnaround is now quicker than usual. Game 2 started less than three hours after Game 1 ended, and anything can happen come first pitch.
But Matheny’s fist pump and loud yell in the bottom of the fifth inning said everything about the weight of an 11-game losing streak being lifted off the Royals’ shoulders.