The act of baseball thievery can be executed in under six seconds. And when the components of the job come together like this, the planning, the timing, the attention to details, the result is close to perfection.
Take Monday afternoon at Comerica Park. The outfielder sprinting back to the wall. The baseball hanging in the air, aided by a sharp breeze. The final jump perfectly timed, down to the millisecond.
“Off the bat,” Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain said, “I thought it was a homer.”
Alex Gordon thought so, too. He had robbed homers before, of course, scaling an outfield wall and bringing a baseball back to the playing field. But never before had it seemed so effortless.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, in what would turn into a 7-6 Royals victory over the Tigers, Detroit’s Mikie Mahtook had clubbed a high drive to left with two men on base against Royals starter Jakob Junis.
Gordon retreated to the wall, gripped his right hand around the chain-link portion of the fence for leverage, and then he waited. From center field, Cain could see the ball hung up in the wind, he said. From his corner of the dugout, Royals manager Ned Yost could see Gordon tracking its flight. As he stood at the wall, Gordon was not sure if he had a chance, he said. But he knew he had one leap.
“Timed my jump perfectly,” he said.
Gordon stood at the wall for two full seconds and then hurled his body into the air, using the fence to steady himself as he pulled the baseball back with his glove.
The catch prevented a three-run homer (“Crucial runs,” Yost said) and preserved a 5-0 lead, leaving Mahtook stunned as he rounded first base. The moment highlighted another white-knuckle affair, the Royals needing every run on the first day of a three-game series.
“When I take BP, I actually practice that a little bit,” Gordon said. “When Salvy, Hos and Moose are hitting, the last couple of rounds, I try to go back to the fence and play around it. It’s a short fence and you can kind of grab it and get over it, so it’s something I do.”
So here are the Royals (68-68), back at .500 after Gordon’s catch, three home runs and another one-out escape from reliever Scott Alexander, who rescued Brandon Maurer in a tense ninth inning.
Alexander entered with two outs and two men on, after Maurer served up a three-run homer to Nicholas Castellanos. Alexander threw four sinkers to Mahtook, inducing a grounder to second and earning his third one-out save since Aug. 22.
“He can handle anything,” Yost said.
The formula was not perfect. Yet the Royals moved to three games behind Minnesota in the American League wild-card race before the Twins’ game with the Rays on Monday night. Kansas City will have two more days here in Detroit to fatten up against the stripped-down Tigers, a rebuilding roster that has found itself without the services of Justin Verlander (traded to Houston), Miguel Cabrera (suspended for his role in a brawl with the Yankees) and Victor Martinez (out for the year because of a heart issue).
“We haven’t lost hope or anything like that,” Gordon said. “There’s a lot of teams kind of bunched in the middle of the wild card. So we just got to keep winning.”
On Monday, the Royals arrived at Comerica Park and faced off against a different Tigers quad. The first hint was rookie starter Artie Lewicki, who was making his major-league debut. The Royals knocked him around for five earned runs in five innings, taking control during a four-run third.
The early assault came via a two-run double by Melky Cabrera and a two-run blast from Eric Hosmer, who notched his 23rd homer of the season, two shy of his career high.
In his latest start, rookie Junis yielded three runs before exiting after five innings, improving to 7-2 with a 4.48 ERA. One inning later, Cain made a tremendous sliding catch with two outs in the sixth, preserving a 5-3 lead with two runners aboard.
Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar tacked on solo homers in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, building a 7-3 lead. Perez, who matched his career high with 22 homers, had not gone deep since July 28, a drought that included a long stint on the disabled list. Escobar had not homered since July 14 against Texas.
By the end, the offense had provided just enough. The defense made two pivotal plays. And Alexander had come up clutch in his “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” role.
“Scotty came in and saved the day again,” Gordon said. “It was a good win.”