CHICAGO — Here was Royals right-hander Wade Davis, perhaps when he needed it most, producing his best effort of the season Saturday in outdueling Chicago lefty Chris Sale in a 1-0 victory at U.S. Cellular Field.
Davis might have been pitching to hold his spot in the rotation after yielding 21 runs in 15 2/3 innings over his four previous starts. If so, he responded magnificently.
“If anything, it was the exact opposite of urgency,” he said. “It was really (a matter of) stepping back, relaxing and taking it easy. Just step back and slow things down.”
Whatever it was, Davis needed every bit of it because Sale was in top form while pitching a complete game. But Sale (6-10) permitted one run, and that was enough to continue his luckless season.
Davis (5-9) got a big boost from center fielder Lorenzo Cain who, for the second straight game, put on a defensive show with several sprinting catches.
Cain also drove in the game’s only run on an RBI double in the sixth before exiting in the eighth because of tightness in his left groin. Jarrod Dyson went to center to start the bottom of the inning.
And, really, all of that was mere prelude to the wild momentum swings in a wacky Chicago ninth inning after the Royals called on Greg Holland to close out their fifth straight victory.
Holland put himself in a big jam before Houdini-ing his way clear with the help of a game-saving catch by right fielder David Lough and some suspect base-running by Alex Rios.
“All closers make things interesting,” manager Ned Yost said. “The thing (Holland) does so well, and he did it tonight, is he holds the fort.”
Holland started the inning by yielding a single to Rios on a grounder through the right side. Adam Dunn then worked back from a 1-2 hole for a walk that put the winning run on base with no outs.
The Royals then settled for one out — a force at second — on Paul Konerko’s grounder to short. Dunn went in hard (and clean) at second, which disrupted Chris Getz’s throw to first.
Eric Hosmer came off the base to prevent an error.
With Rios at third, the White Sox sent Casper Wells in to run for Konerko at first base. And here the inning — and the game — turned decisively in the Royals’ favor.
Jeff Keppinger sent a sinking liner into right field that, initially, seemed certain to fall in front of Lough, who was playing deeper than normal in a no-doubles defensive alignment.
But Lough charged in and chose to make a diving attempt.
“I thought I had a chance for it,” he said, “so I went for it. That’s one of those plays where it’s all or nothing. That’s what I wanted to do, and I was able to make a good catch.”
Had Rios been positioned to tag, he likely could have scored even though Lough bounced quickly to his feet. Then again … had Rios remained at third, Lough was positioned for a play at the plate if he played the ball on a hop.
“To tell you the truth,” Rios said, “I don’t think there’s much I could have done. That was a (heck) of a play, and even if I tagged up, I don’t think I had a chance at home. It’s a tough play for us.”
Holland had, in his mind, already conceded the tie.
“(Lough) made an unbelievable catch and saved the game for us,” he said. “We got pretty lucky there. Lough made a great play, and they weren’t able to tag for whatever reason. And we ended up getting out of it.”
Holland then ended the inning by striking out Blake Tekotte on a check swing for his 26th save.
It’s all good, pretty much, right now for the Royals, who have won seven of nine since returning the All-Star break and now find themselves back to within one game of .500 at 50-51 entering Sunday’s series finale.
The frenetic finish aside, Davis provided the night’s biggest plus. He carried a three-hit shutout into the eighth inning — but only that 1-0 lead — before departing after Alejandro De Aza’s one-out single.
Louis Coleman ended the inning by getting Alexei Ramirez to ground into a double play. That got the game to Holland.
The 7 1/3 innings marked Davis’ season high; he worked seven on three previous occasions. He lowered his ERA from 5.92 to 5.50.
“I got ahead of a lot more guys tonight,” he said. “I got some early swings, which helped me go deeper into the ballgame. The defense was pretty good today, too.”
It was all too familiar for Sale, who receives the least run support of any pitcher in the majors at 2.49 runs per game. He is 1-8 in his last 10 outings despite a 2.71 ERA and eight quality starts.
“I knew coming in tonight that he was going to throw a pretty good game,” Davis said. “He’s been throwing a good game every time out. Especially when we got that run, I wanted to minimize my mistakes and keep going.”
The Royals had several chances to break through against Sale but were just one for nine with runners in scoring position. The only run came in the sixth after Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler opened the inning with singles.
Salvy Perez’s fly to deep center moved Hosmer to third before Cain pulled a double past third for a 1-0 lead. That was it. Sale stranded runners at second and third.
One run was enough thanks, prior to the ninth, to some big catches by Cain. He ran down Konerko’s two-out drive to deep center with runners at first and third in the sixth.
Cain then opened the seventh by chasing down a Keppinger drive — and holding onto the ball after slamming into the wall. That was the play that led to Cain’s removal as a precaution.
Plans call for him to be re-examined Sunday, but the Royals think he should be ready to play Tuesday when they open a three-game series at Minnesota.
For all Cain did, though, the catch of the night belonged to Lough.
“My first reaction,” Yost said, “was it’s a base-hit. But then … he looked like Superman flying through the air.”