The throw from center field was true, and Mike Moustakas understood he would require good fortune to snap a ninth-inning deadlock. Major-league baseball outlawed home-plate collisions this last offseason, so Moustakas said he chose the next best option, “trying to slide in hard” toward Chicago White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers.
Flowers wrapped his glove around the baseball and shifted to place a tag. Except a funny thing happened on the way to yet another fizzled Royals’ rally. Moustakas‘ right knee collided with Flowers’ glove, the baseball shook loose and the Royals gathered the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of a 2-1 victory.
“Luckily, the ball popped out, and we’re sitting here with a win right now,” Moustakas said.
Moustakas saw the ball dribble away and stood up on home plate. The night before he swatted a pair of homers in a romp. In Wednesday’s series finale, he opened the go-ahead sequence with a hard-fought single and scored after a hit by Nori Aoki. Inside the dugout, his teammates showered him with appreciation and high-fives.
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After limping into Chicago, the Royals exited on their first winning streak, albeit a brief one, in weeks. The series victory may alleviate some of the pressure on manager Ned Yost as it allowed the Royals (50-50) to regain a .500 record. They return to Kauffman Stadium on Thursday for a crucial four-game series with the Cleveland Indians, who reside above them in the American League Central standings.
“You can’t lose faith,” Yost said. “You can’t start panicking. You can’t think the ship is sinking. You’ve got to stay positive, because these guys have the ability to fight through it, and get themselves out of it, and get back on a roll.”
Perhaps they do. Even so, the hitters exposed their myriad flaws on Wednesday. Nine of their 10 hits were singles. They batted 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position, stranded 10 batters and hit into four double plays.
They hung in thanks to seven solid innings from James Shields, who matched White Sox lefty Jose Quintana in a taut duel. Each yielded a first-inning run, then settled into a rhythm. Chicago loaded the bases against Shields in the second, only to see Shields ground out second baseman Gordon Beckham and proceed to roll.
“When we need him most, man, he steps up,” Moustakas said of Shields. “He goes out and does what he can do. He pitches his tail off every time he’s on the mound.”
During the next five innings, Shields allowed only two hits. He notched all seven of his strikeouts during this time. He caused the White Sox to assault the U.S. Cellular Field grass with ground balls.
Shields credited aggressiveness within the strike zone and command of his offspeed offerings for his success. He struck out rookie sensation Jose Abreu with changeups in the third and fourth. He dusted off Adam Dunn with a 92-mph fastball in the third and with a diving curve in the sixth.
“For the most part, I was just consistent,” Shields said. “My tempo was really good today.”
Yet he could not earn credit for a victory. The lineup failed to execute for much of the afternoon.
In the morning, Yost elected to keep Billy Butler on the bench. He wanted Danny Valencia’s bat in the lineup, and he noted Moustakas’ .364 batting average against Quintana. So Moustakas manned third base and Valencia, his backup, replaced Butler as the designated hitter.
Butler entered the day tied for the American League lead in double plays. Valencia made a bid for his crown.
He chopped into one after Alex Gordon opened the second inning with a single. After Cain shortened the third inning with a double play of his own, Valencia came to bat with two on and one out in the fourth. Quintana pumped a fastball at his fists. Valencia tapped it back to the mound and watched the inning end.
“Quintana? This sucker’s good, man,” Yost said. “You know when you match up with him, it’s going to be a tough go.”
The plot did not change in the next few innings. Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon managed singles in the sixth. With two outs, Valencia struck out with runners at the corners.
The Royals could not break through against Quintana. When the bullpens opened, they possessed an edge. Closer Greg Holland is an All Star, and set-up man Wade Davis deserved to join him. Chicago countered with rookie Zach Putnam.
Putnam tangled with Moustakas for eight pitches. The last was a splitter on the outside corner. Moustakas reached out to pull it past Beckham’s dive. Alcides Escobar advanced him with a bunt. Aoki would not receive credit for an RBI, as the scorekeeper charged Flowers with an error, but he flicked a splitter in shallow center to ignite Moustakas’ charge home.
In another era, before the rules changed, Moustakas would have led with his shoulder. He knew no other way. “I’m not the fastest guy,” Moustakas said. “So I’ve got to do something to try to score.”
His options were limited here. He still received a reward for his effort.
“I just tried to slide in hard, and hopefully it [would come] out,” Moustakas said. “And it did.”