KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Scoreless game in the 10th, two outs, bases loaded, full count, postseason survival on the line in the home finale.
And adding to the moment, the opposing pitcher is a former Royals hero.
The stuff of dreams for anybody who has stepped into a batter’s box.
Justin Maxwell provided the best possible outcome for the Royals, a no-doubt walkoff grand slam against Joakim Soria, sending the Royals off on their final road trip with perhaps their most dramatic triumph of the season, a 4-0 win over the Texas Rangers.
Maybe even a few seasons.
“That was the coolest thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said left fielder Alex Gordon, one of the longest-tenured Royals.
Something else new to Gordon and the other Royals: a winning record. Sunday’s victory was the 82nd this season, clinching the franchise’s first winning record since 2003 with seven games remaining.
The triumph didn’t move the Royals any closer in the wild-card chase. Both wild-card leaders — the Rays and Indians — won Sunday, keeping the Royals 3 1/2 games back.
But the Royals moved past the Yankees and Orioles in the wild-card standings, with only the Rangers ahead.
Maxwell’s blast cleared the left-field bullpen and touched off a wild celebration at home plate. A crowd of 27,899 roared, then watched Maxwell’s postgame interview on the field interrupted by several splashes from water buckets and shaving cream smears.
Turns out, Maxwell has traveled those bases before. The fourth walk-off grand slam in Royals history was the second of Maxwell’s career, his first occurring as a member of the Nationals in 2009. That also came in the final home game of the season.
“I was just thinking, ‘Just try to hit the ball hard,’ Maxwell said as he approached the at-bat.
When the count reached 3-2, Maxwell had the advantage. Soria, the former Royals’ All-Star, had no place but the strike zone to locate the pitch.
“I was just looking for a fastball strike,” said Maxwell, who was facing Soria for the first time. “I got one and took a good swing at it. I didn’t try to do too much with it.”
The Royals had been helpless at the plate until the 10th, enduring on the strength of gutty pitching and the usual stellar defense.
Eric Hosmer got things started with a double that sliced between third baseman Adrian Beltre and the bag. The Royals had their first extra base, their first hit of any kind since the third inning, and first base runner since the fourth. Until Hosmer, 17 straight Royals had been retired.
In came Soria, and the Rangers intentionally walked Billy Butler.
Royals manager Ned Yost then made the first of two important decisions in the inning. He removed the slow-footed Butler for Chris Getz, and the move immediately paid off when Salvador Perez’s one-hopper slightly to the right of shortstop Elvis Andrus was gloved, but the throw wasn’t in time to force Getz.
That loaded the bases with no outs, and the Royals looked like sure winners — until Mike Moustakas popped weakly to third base and George Kottaras, pinch-hitting for Lorenzo Cain grounded to second. Ian Kinsler’s throw easily beat Hosmer to the plate.
The once promising inning was now down to its final batter. At this point, Yost considered pinching hitting the left-handed hitting David Lough for Maxwell.
“Do we go with Maxwell or David Lough? I’m going back and forth in my mind,” Yost said. “I just had a gut feeling about Justin Maxwell.”
The Royals reached that point because James Shields and two relievers kept the game scoreless, matching the Rangers’ superb effort led by starter Alexi Ogando.
James Shields went one inning farther than Ogando’s seven, but Shields pitched six full frames after taking a line drive off the bat of David Murphy on his right forearm on the bone just below the elbow.
“I had a hard time feeling the baseball the whole rest of the game,” Shields said. “It was one of those games, one of those moments I wasn’t coming out of the game. I told (Yost) it wasn’t hurting. It wasn’t necessarily feeling good.”
Shields turned it over to Greg Holland in the ninth, and here the Rangers had their best scoring opportunity. Holland bounced strike three past a swing Alex Rios, but the ball skipped past Perez and Rios took first. He stole his 39th base on a play that Yost argued, but although Rios survived one of the best arms in baseball, it wasn’t going to happen twice.
Beltre lifted a fly to deep left, and Rios tagged up, and challenged the arm of Alex Gordon, who entered the game leading the American League with 15 outfield assists.
No. 16 was a perfect one-hop strike to Moustakas, who applied the tag. No argument here.
“Cain was telling me he was tagging up and I knew I had to make a good throw,” Gordon said.
It was a perfect throw for the double play. An inning later the Royals had their perfect and dramatic ending.