KANSAS CITY, Mo. — First, this would have been a bad loss. The Royals carried a four-run lead into the later innings Wednesday afternoon before their bullpen, their most reliable weapon, nearly let it slip away against a struggling opponent that is really struggling to score runs.
But Billy Butler saved the Royals from that possibility with a tie-breaking homer in the eighth inning that produced a 5-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on a blistering afternoon that saw the temperature hit 101 degrees at Kauffman Stadium.
“As much as the bullpen has picked us up all year,” Butler said, “it’s good to pick them up. They struggled, maybe, a little bit today. Heck, I think it might be a boost to them that we picked them up. They’ve picked us up way more than we’ve picked them up.”
The victory enabled the Royals to complete a three-game sweep – their first series sweep of the Rays since May 15-17, 2001. It also provided a nice recovery after opening the homestand by suffering three losses to St. Louis.
“We came into the clubhouse at the start of the series,” left fielder Alex Gordon said, “and just forgot about St. Louis and moved on.”
Jonathan Broxton closed out the victory by working around a one-out walk in the ninth for his 19th save in 22 opportunities. Aaron Crow (1-1) got the victory as a reward for preventing the go-ahead run from scoring from third base in the eighth inning.
“They played great over there,” said right fielder Ben Zobrist, who had three of the Rays’ nine hits and drove in three of their four runs. “They did everything. They hit the ball really well this series. They pitched really well and played good defense.
“We really couldn’t get anything going. Hats off to them.”
Butler’s homer came after the Rays brought in Burke Badenhop to replace lefty starter Matt Moore specifically for a right-on-right matchup.
“I really felt like that was the right spot for Badenhop,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said, “with Butler and (Jeff) Francoeur right there. I would do it again tomorrow and the next day.”
This day, it didn’t work.
“The only thing I knew was he has a sinker and a slider,” Butler said. “And I knew the velocity. It was a sinker up. It didn’t sink. It just kind of ran. That’s how I got underneath it.”
Badenhop (1-2) worked the count to 2-1 before Butler sent a 393-foot laser over the left-field wall for his club-leading 15th homer.
“I got behind him,” Badenhop said. “I threw a really flat sinker, and he hit the crap out of it. That’s it pretty much in a nutshell. You’re fine if you get beat with your best or whatever; that right there wasn’t obviously my best.”
Then it was just a matter of whether Broxton could apply a sweet ending to a generally sour bullpen performance. He did so – with only a dash of the white-knuckle seasoning he routinely applies.
“I still didn’t go one-two-three,” Broxton said with a wry smile. “We let the lead slip away right there late in the game. Billy found a way to put us back up, and we came out with a victory.”
The problems came earlier.
Lefty Tim Collins inherited a 4-2 lead to start the eighth, which began ominously when first baseman Eric Hosmer booted Carlos Peña’s grounder for an error. Collins then put the tying run on base – with no outs – by walking Jeff Keppinger.
Brooks Conrad struck out, but the error and walk bit the Royals when Zobrist punched a two-run triple into the right-field corner. That pulled the Rays even at 4-4 and snatched a victory away from Everett Teaford.
The Royals shortened their infield when Crow replaced Collins – and got what they needed when pinch-hitter Will Rhymes hit a grounder to short.
Alcides Escobar’s throw to the plate nailed Zobrist, but Zobrist slid hard into catcher Salvy Perez’s left knee. That is Perez’s surgically-repaired knee, and he underwent a quick examination before remaining in the game. Just a bruise.
Teaford carried a 4-0 lead into the sixth before succumbing somewhat to the heat. He opened the inning by walking B.J. Upton before yielding a single to Peña.
“I’ve got to get through that,” Teaford said. “I got the ground ball. Peña just hit it in a good spot.”
In came Kelvin Herrera, who surrendered an RBI single to Keppinger. After Conrad grounded into a double play, Zobrist lined an RBI single that made it 4-2. That inning ended when Perez thwarted Zobrist’s attempt to steal second.
Greg Holland worked around a first-and-third threat in the seventh by striking out Elliot Johnson and Upton – the latter on a favorable called third strike by Tony Randazzo on a full count. The reprieve was temporary.
It all started well.
Mike Moustakas opened the scoring with a two-out homer in the first inning. Escobar jumped a 1-1 fastball from Moore to open the third inning for his second homer of the year – and his first in 216 at-bats dating to April 18.
Escobar finished three for three and raised his average to .315.
The Royals doubled their lead to 4-0 in their fifth.
Jason Bourgeois led off with a walk and went to third on Escobar’s double into the left-field corner. Moore struck out Gordon, but Yuniesky Betancourt bounced a two-run single between short and third.
That seemed like plenty since the Rays had scored just two run in the series’ 23 previous innings. Especially with the Royals’ bullpen. Not so. It was, instead, mere prelude for Butler.
“Everyone was a little down,” Gordon said. “We had the lead, and we were hoping for an easy win here. But Billy picked us up. That got everyone pretty excited. Billy loved it.”