Looking for positive signs that the Royals are, slowly, turning things around after that miserable start? Consider: They found a way Wednesday night to beat Boston lefty Jon Lester, a long-time nemesis, to win a three-game series and secure a winning homestand.
This 4-3 victory at Kauffman Stadium, and 4-3 homestand against the Red Sox and New York Yankees, followed a 4-3 road trip that concluded with the Royals finding a way to win a game started by Detroit’s Justin Verlander, another eternal tormentor.
“I think it shows we’re going in the right direction,” said catcher Brayan Pena, whose two-run double highlighted a three-run first. “If we can just pitch well enough to keep ourselves in the ballgame, I think we’re going to be fine — because we know we can hit.”
Royals starter Bruce Chen, 1-4, finally got his first victory after limiting the Red Sox to three runs and seven hits in 62/3 innings. He stumbled only in a three-run third before exiting with two outs in the seventh after Mike Aviles’ single.
“This is huge,” Chen said. “We caught a lot of fire in our last homestand, when we didn’t win a game. We’re playing very good as of lately and, hopefully, the momentum can keep carrying on.”
While the Royals are still just 11-19, they are, somehow, just six games out in the American League Central Division. It could — and probably should — be a lot worse.
“That’s the first time in a long time that I felt we were firing on all cylinders,” manager Ned Yost said. “We’re facing a guy who has been extremely tough on us. We had clutch hitting, clutch pitching. I thought Bruce threw a tremendous game.
“It was a great way to end the homestand for us.”
The Royals forced Lester, 1-3, into an early exit by making him work through 108 pitches in just five innings. He gave up four runs and six hits, although just one run was earned.
Still that seemed like a bonanza. The Royals had scored just three runs total in their five previous match-ups against Lester, starting with his no-hitter on May 19, 2008, at Fenway Park.
“Just too many pitches throughout the game,” he said. “Too many pitches to get guys out. It was more location than anything. When I was around the zone, they put it in play. They squared up balls I thought were good pitches.”
Aaron Crow replaced Chen after Aviles’ two-out single in the seventh and ended the inning by retiring Dustin Pedroia on a fly to center. Crow also breezed through the eighth before Jonathan Broxton survived a tense ninth by closing out the victory for his seventh save.
Cody Ross led off with a single, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia followed with a walk that moved pinch-runner Darnell McDonald to second.
Broxton then nearly hit Marlon Byrd with a pitch, but umpire Jeff Nelson ruled the ball hit the bat on the attempted sacrifice bunt. Nelson’s decision not to consult other umpires infuriated Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine.
“Did he get hit?” Valentine fumed. “Yeah, he got hit. He got hit on the finger. It’s a (darn) shame. Ump can’t make the right call. A (darn) shame. If you can’t get it right, ask for help. He refused to ask for help.”
Byrd then executed the sacrifice, which moved the runners to second and third with one out. So the Red Sox were still great position to pull even or take the lead.
But when left fielder Alex Gordon made a sliding catch on Ryan Sweeney’s sinking liner, McDonald chose to stay at third.
“My first step was back,” Gordon said. “I wasn’t sure how hard he hit it. Then I came in a little bit, and knew when I got to it there was a possible tag, so I came up throwing right away. I was in pretty shallow, so it was a 50-50 shot he was going to go.”
Broxton then ended the game by retiring Aviles on a grounder to short.
“We’ve just got to keep building on this,” Broxton said. “We’ve started to turn it around a bit. We had some bad games even in this homestand, but you’re starting to see a lot better signs.”
Chen provided a struggling rotation with just its second quality start in 12 games.
“We went back to the video room,” Pena said, “and we found out we weren’t using the changeup enough. That’s the pitch that keeps a lot of hitters off-balance. Today, we used it a little bit more, and it was effective.”
The Royals caught some breaks, too, particularly in a three-run first inning aided by some sloppy Boston outfield play and a pivotal call on a disputed play.
All the damage came with two outs.
Billy Butler drew a walk, and Jeff Francoeur followed with a grounder through the left side before the Red Sox turned charitable.
Johnny Giavotella, recalled earlier in the day from Class AAA Omaha, sent a drive into center that Byrd overran and misplayed into a run-scoring error. Butler scored, and Francoeur went to third.
Then came the game’s key moment.
Pena sent a drive deep into the left-center gap that Ross initially caught — but the ball popped loose from the glove’s webbing and caromed off the wall before Ross corralled it.
Hitting the wall put the ball in play. Two runs scored, Pena was credited with a double, and Valentine came out to argue with third-base umpire Chris Guccione, who made the call.
The question was whether Ross had held the ball long enough for the out. Guccione conferred with the rest of the umpiring crew before maintaining the call. The Royals led 3-0.
“They got it right,” Valentine conceded. “I thought it hit the glove, then bounced off the wall. It’s not a catch unless you get it out of the glove. Cody went a long way, caught the ball, then it popped out of his glove.”
Boston struck back with three runs in the third after Byrd and Sweeney opened the inning with singles. Aviles flied out, but Pedroia’s high pop into short right fell for a single that loaded the bases.
Chen struck out David Ortiz, but Adrian Gonzalez pumped a full-count pitch into right-center for a three-run double. Tie game.
The Royals regained the lead after Irving Falu opened the fourth with a line-drive double to left. He took third on Chris Getz’s sacrifice before scoring when Alcides Escobar served a soft liner over a shortened infield and hustled his way to a double.
“That’s a good at-bat,” Escobar said. “I’m looking for one pitch to try to hit into the air. He threw me a changeup, and I got a base-hit. Things are turning around. Everyone feels better.”