KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Start with this: The Royals should have been on cruise control entering the ninth inning. They were, instead, clinging to a two-run lead after wasting a bushel of scoring opportunities.
And then things got tense before Greg Holland, in All-Star closer form, closed out a 3-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles by stranding the tying run at third base with no outs.
“Our closer is special, man,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “You get a guy on third with no outs and one of the best hitters on the planet up. He didn’t back down.”
That best hitter would be Chris Davis, who leads the majors with 37 homers. He came to the plate after Nick Markakis opened the inning with a single and came around on Adam Jones’ triple into the left-center gap.
“They had a runner on third base with nobody out,” manager Ned Yost said, “and I was completely comfortable. I felt that Holly was gonna get the job done … I knew that he had the stuff to get it done for us.”
Was Holland that confident?
“Probably not,” he admitted, “but in that situation, you’ve just got to make pitches. Hopefully (you) get a few ground balls, and I was fortunate enough to get a few.”
Two grounders, in fact, after he struck out Davis with a nasty slider in the dirt that Salvy Perez blocked and threw to first for the first out.
“At that point,” Holland said, “I’m going to pitch (J.J.) Hardy tough. If I fall behind, I’m going to put him on and take my chances with a double play.”
Hardy hit a grounder to third, which forced Jones to hold while Mike Moustakas threw to first for the out. Holland then saved a much-deserved victory for Bruce Chen when Henry Urrutia grounded to first.
So it worked out for the Royals —even after stranding 12 runners and going two for 15 with runners in scoring position.
“Against teams like that,” Hosmer said, “any time you get a chance to step on their throat, you’ve got to add (runs). We have confidence in our bullpen but, still, those are big runs. The bullpen picked us up on this one.”
Chen (4-0) delivered his second sterling effort since joining the rotation in limiting the Orioles to one run and three hits in six innings. He pitched six shutout innings in his previous start at Cleveland.
“I’m feeling good,” Chen said. “I can’t take all of the credit. I feel (pitching coach) Dave Eiland helped me with a game plan and George (Kottaras) called a great game.
“And we scored early in the game. That gave me some room to work.”
The Royals scored single runs in the first three innings against Baltimore starter Jason Hammel (7-7) but missed repeated chances to blow open the game.
“All three innings there,” Hammel said, “they could have gotten out of hand real fast, and early, too. Chen threw a better game. He kept our guys off-balance and executed his pitches.
“A lot of guys take him for granted —not throwing too hard. He knows how to pitch. Hats off to him.”
Kelvin Herrera inherited a 3-1 lead from Chen to start the seventh and worked around a one-out error in large part because of a double defensive gem produced the second out with a runner on second.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar ranged up the middle for a Hardy grounder, and Hosmer dug out a throw at first. Herrera ended the inning by striking out Urrutia.
Aaron Crow replaced Herrera in the eighth and courted trouble by issuing a one-out walk to Taylor Teagarden, the No. 9 hitter with a .105 average.
Nate McLouth kept the inning alive by beating the relay on a potential double-play hopper to the mound, but Crow slipped a called third strike past Manny Machado.
Escobar then opened the Royals’ eighth with a single up the middle against TJ. McFarland and went to second on a sacrifice by Chris Getz.
But … nothing. Alex Gordon grounded to first. After Hosmer, the Orioles called on Jairo Asencio to face Lorenzo Cain, who grounded into a force at second.
The Royals began squandering chances in the first inning after they loaded the bases with no outs against Hammel on singles by Gordon and Hosmer and a walk to Cain.
They settled for one run.
Gordon scored on Billy Butler’s double-play grounder to third before Moustakas struck out.
The Royals extended their lead to 2-0 after David Lough opened the second inning with a single. Lough went to third on Escobar’s one-out single and scored on Getz’s single up the middle.
Escobar challenged Jones’ arm —and won —in going to third. Getz moved to second on the throw. So...second and third with one out; again, the Royals settled for just one run. Gordon struck out, and Hosmer lined out to first.
The Orioles got their only run against Chen on Machado’s one-out homer in the third, but the Royals answered with one later in the inning —although, again, they missed a chance for a bigger inning.
Cain and Butler opened the inning with singles before Moustakas pulled an RBI double into the right-field corner for a 3-1 lead. But Hammel retired Lough on a pop before George Kottaras and Escobar lined out to the infield.
The Royals also failed to cash Moustakas’ one-out double in the fifth.
And in the sixth, Getz led off with a walk, stole second with one out and third with two outs. Hammel walked Cain but retired Butler on a grounder to first.
“We had numerous opportunities to break that game open,” Yost said, “but, we scored three runs. The pitching was fantastic tonight, headed up by Bruce Chen.”
And one great escape by Holland.