On the plane ride into Colorado, as Monday evening segued into Tuesday morning, Ned Yost celebrated his 60th birthday. His team arrived at their hotel at 2 a.m. He awoke still the steward of a first-place club, a manager suddenly incapable of missteps.
He crafted his Royals lineup for a 7-4 victory over the Rockies as if it were any other day. He activated Salvador Perez, even though Perez hurt his knee the night before. He started Mike Moustakas, despite the presence of a left-handed starter for Colorado. And ignoring mounting evidence of a horrific slump, he stuck with Omar Infante as his No. 2 hitter.
Infante had hit .190 since the All-Star break. He had hit .182 in August. Yet he still occupied premier real estate inside the lineup, siphoning at-bats from Perez, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon.
In the seventh inning on Tuesday, the team appeared on the verge of paying for Yost’s obstinacy. Infante stepped to the plate with a pair of runners aboard and two outs. His team trailed by one. He had two hits already on the evening, but only one in four games over the weekend in Minneapolis.
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What followed, of course, must feel familiar for those following this sun-kissed season. Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino fired a 98-mph fastball. Infante lunged and flicked his bat across the plate. The baseball brushed the inside of the right-field line to score both runners. When Salvador Perez dunked an RBI double in center, a “Let’s go Royals!” chant erupted from the thousands of Royals partisans at Coors Field.
The chant erupted again in the eighth when Infante smacked his third double of the game. He plated two more runs with this hit. He matched a career-high with a trio of doubles. The four RBIs pushed his season total to a career-high 57.
The group of out-of-town fans massed behind the Kansas City dugout and celebrated the team’s fourth victory in five games on this road trip. The Royals (70-55) have won 22 of their last 27 games. They can exact a two-game sweep on Wednesday to gather their ninth series victory in a row.
Until the seventh, the outcome appeared in doubt. James Shields (12-6, 3.28 ERA) danced around nine hits. He held the Rockies to a pair of runs in six innings.
Colorado attacked Shields from the jump. Charlie Blackmon led off with a single, and Drew Stubbs smashed a grounder that spun out of Infante’s glove. Blackmon took third. He scored on a double play.
Shields opposed Tyler Matzek, a 2009 first-round pick suffering through a trying season at Coors Field. At the start on Tuesday, Matzek reminded why he was once the No. 11 pick. The first ball the Royals hit in the air was a harmless infield fly lofted by Salvador Perez in the fourth.
The spell broke later that frame. Butler let a series of fastballs miss and took a walk. With two outs, Cain sliced a liner into right-center field. Butler began to rumble. He ran with abandon but little speed. He was at third base when center fielder Drew Stubbs relayed the ball to second baseman D.J. LeMahieu.
Third-base coach Mike Jirschele sent Butler home. The throw drew catcher Michael McKenry up the third-base line. He dropped the baseball as he reached for the tag. Butler side-stepped the catcher’s bulk and flopped his left arm across the plate.
Aggression only looks silly when it fails. The Royals suffered the flip side of the coin in the fifth. Perez came to bat with two outs and two on. For some reason, Nori Aoki chose this moment to steal third. After a replay review, he was ruled out, and the rally fizzled before Perez even swung.
Shields was pitching in this park for the second time in his career. He became familiar with the thin air and spacious outfield of Coors Field one June night in 2007. The Rockies pounded him for five runs.
In the fifth inning on Tuesday, he watched Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado punish a curveball. The ball carried and carried before it cleared the fence in left-center field to put Colorado back in front.
Shields stood in the on-deck circle in the seventh inning. With two outs, Yost removed him and inserted Josh Willingham. He rolled a single up the middle past Matzek. Aoki kept the rally alive with a walk. Then it was up to Infante, the slump-ridden second baseman, and the man who rewarded the birthday boy for his faith.
SI cover — The Royals are on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated, which can mean many things.
One, they’re jinxed. You’ve heard about the SI jinx, right?
Two, it’s the start of a new chapter in Royals history.
We will let you decide.
We do know this: Billy Butler’s cover presence marks the second time a Kansas City sports figure has been on SI’s cover in the last month. Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles was the other.