The decisive point, possibly, for the Royals in Thursday’s 7-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins occurred hours before the first pitch at Target Field.
Outfielder Lorenzo Cain pronounced himself ready to play after testing his sore left groin with a full on-field workout.
That prompted a late lineup change to put Cain into center field, and he responded by making a spectacular catch at the wall that snatched away a two-run homer from Trevor Plouffe in the fifth inning.
“Did it look good?” Cain asked through a smile. “I got a good jump on it. I was able to get back, take a peek at the wall, get up and make a play. I was pumped up. I robbed a home run.
“I was kind of excited, and it got the team excited. Then we came in and got the bats going.”
And the Royals roll on.
They have now won nine in a row for the first time opening the 2003 season at 9-0. They head to New York to play the Mets with their first 6-0 start to a road trip since 1980 after sweeps in Chicago and Minnesota.
And it’s August! If it’s too early to start talking pennant races and postseason chases in other places, fine. For the Royals, and their fans, this is like April in Paris.
“I didn’t think, early in the season, that we had everything together,” second baseman Miguel Tejada said. “But I remember when I was with the A’s, the first two months, we couldn’t get the chemistry together.
“That’s like this team. You can see the difference now. We know how great our pitching is. Now, our hitting (is coming along), and we’re playing good defense. We’re starting to get big hits in big situations.”
Let’s start with that Cain play.
Royals starter James Shields, while he labored at times, carried a 5-2 lead into the fifth. And after yielding a leadoff single to Joe Mauer, Shields retired the next two hitters before Plouffe crushed a drive to deep center.
Cain retreated on the ball and made a leaping catch at the bullpen wall that pulled back a two-run homer in front of the Royals’ relief corps, which erupted in celebration.
“That fence is higher than it looks,” Cain said. “I got up as high as I could, stuck my glove over and made a play. I don’t ever remember pulling one back, but I’ve made a lot of plays against the wall.”
Shields raised his arms in a triumphant touchdown gesture and, if you’ve been watching the last two weeks, you knew this one was over.
Yes, a big play.
“Oh, hands down,” Shields said. “It’s a one-run ballgame right there (if the ball goes out). I’m probably going to throw five innings rather than six if he doesn’t catch that ball. He’s been doing that all season long.”
The Royals then knocked out Minnesota starter Scott Diamond, 5-10, in the next inning, the sixth, after newcomer Justin Maxwell walked and Alcides Escobar followed with a single.
Anthony Swarzak replaced Diamond with two on and no outs — and nearly escaped. But Eric Hosmer avoided a double-play grounder by beating the relay and then stole second.
Billy Butler then drove a two-run single into right. The Royals led 7-2, which is how it ended. All seven runs were charged to Diamond, who was sent to the minors after the game.
“Billy’s hit was huge,” manager Ned Yost said in drawing out the last word. “Tack-on runs are always huge.”
Shields, 6-7, put in a grinding six innings — 116 pitches — but limited the Twins to two runs and five hits...thanks in part to Cain’s great play. Shields has also won consecutive starts for the first time as a Royal.
“To be honest with you,” he said, “I didn’t have much today. But when you get the defense behind you like we had today...I keep saying it over and over, but our defense is phenomenal. Lo, obviously, made a game-changing play.”
Luke Hochevar breezed through the seventh and eighth before Louis Coleman struck out the side in the ninth inning.
Nine in a row.
The Royals jumped out early with a two-run second inning that Salvy Perez and Cain opened with singles. They then caught (and cashed) a break when Plouffe booted Tejada’s potential double-play grounder to third.
That loaded the bases with no outs.
Mike Moustakas made it 1-0 with a sacrifice fly to right, and Maxwell, in his first at-bat with the Royals, followed by lining an RBI single into left.
The Royals stretched their lead to 3-0 in the third after right fielder Chris Herrmann misplayed Alex Gordon’s leadoff drive off the wall into a triple. Hosmer followed with a sacrifice fly.
Minnesota’s only runs came in the third after Brian Dozier led off with a double to left. He went to third on Doug Bernier’s grounder to short and scored on Mauer’s grounder to second.
Minnesota then closed to 3-2 on Justin Morneau’s two-out homer on a 410-foot drive to straightaway center.
The Royals answered with single runs in the fourth and fifth before delivering a one-two knockout punch with Cain’s catch and Butler’s two-run single.
“We’re on a nice little (11-2) roll after the break,” Shields said. “Unfortunately, we’re not gaining too many games. But going into these last two months, this is how we need to play.”
The Royals trail first-place Detroit, which has won nine of 10, by 6 1/2 games and second-place Cleveland, which has won eight in a row, by 4 1/2 games.
“This is a tough division with some good teams,” Shields said. “We’re just going to grind it out until the end of the season. We’ve got plenty of games against those two teams left. It should be interesting.”