KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The reaction in left field clued in Salvador Perez. Backup catcher Drew Butera emerged from the shadows inside the Royals bullpen to slash his right fist in triumph. Bullpen catcher Cody Clark bent to snag Perez’s solo homer as it cleared the fence in the eighth inning of a 4-3 victory over the Texas Rangers on Sunday.
The rest of the inhabitants of a sold-out Kauffman Stadium erupted as Perez glanced back at his teammates in the Royals dugout and grinned.
“The bullpen started to jump,” Perez said. “I said, ‘OK, I got it.’”
Inside the dugout, the atmosphere was euphoric. The Royals had lost nine times in their last 11 games, and they faced the prospect of a sweep at the hands of the Rangers until Perez crushed an ill-advised fastball from rookie reliever Keone Kela. Perez broke a deadlock, created a sense of optimism heading into an upcoming series with the first-place Twins and sent his teammates into hysterics.
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“Dude, we went crazy,” outfielder Jarrod Dyson said. “Like, literally, went crazy. We were like little kids in a candy store, baby.”
Perez waved to pump up the crowd after he crossed the plate. He completed an elaborate series of handshakes with Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. The fans chanted his name. An appreciative roar greeted him when he trotted back to the diamond to catch Greg Holland in an effortless ninth inning.
The Royals, 31-23, lost four of their six games on this home stand. An eight-game trip to Minnesota, St. Louis and Milwaukee awaits. On Sunday, at long last, they resembled the club that charged to the front of the division during the season’s first two months. The offense managed to overcome a rare hiccup from reliever Kelvin Herrera, who allowed two of Jeremy Guthrie’s inherited runners to score and gave up a run of his own in the seventh.
“To see that ball going over the fence was a big relief,” Hosmer said. “Hopefully, it will get us going.”
The Royals showed signs of life even before Perez went deep. Alcides Escobar keyed the lineup with two hits, two runs and an RBI. Kendrys Morales swatted an RBI double in the fifth. Then Perez electrified the park in the eighth.
With the victory, Ned Yost tied Dick Howser with 404 victories managing the Royals, the second-most in franchise history. Whitey Herzog owns first place with 410. Yost’s new place in the record book left him sounding humble. He pointed to the greatness of Howser, who was stricken with cancer in 1986 and died a year later, and the faith of Royals general manager Dayton Moore.
“It’s kind of a crazy scenario, because I think if Dick hadn’t gotten sick, I don’t think anybody would have tied him,” Yost said. “And two, I don’t really see it as my accomplishment. I’ve got great players that win baseball games. I’ve got great coaches that help me.
“And quite frankly, Dayton could have fired me five times over the last five years. So it’s not really anything that I’ve done special.”
Yost stuck with his usual script Sunday. Guthrie had his second productive start since an 11-run debacle May 25 at Yankee Stadium. He held Texas to one hit, a fourth-inning double, through his first six innings. He struck out five batters through four innings.
“I thought we mixed up the curveball with the change-up,” Guthrie said. “I thought that mix was really important to keep them off-balance.”
In the seventh, Texas struck back. Mitch Moreland and Joey Gallo collected singles off Guthrie. Into the fire stepped Herrera.
Herrera fired fastball after fastball at shortstop Elvis Andrus. An 0-2, 100-mph heater nicked the outside corner, but umpire Jim Reynolds ruled it a ball. Herrera aimed outside in search of a double-play ball. Andrus finally lined a 99-mph fastball into right.
The bases were loaded. Herrera dueled with outfielder Leonys Martin. Herrera notched two strikes, but could not finish the at-bat. Martin shot a single past second baseman Omar Infante to score two runners. A ground-out by catcher Robinson Chirinos tied the game, with Martin running with the pitch to avoid a double play.
“I didn’t see the runner going on the groundball,” Yost said. “So I’m like, ‘Turn two! Turn two!’ And I look up and see, ‘Oh, crap.’”
The tie only set the stage for Perez. When the day began, the Royals could turn to the standings for comfort. The losing had not cost them a shot at contention in the American League Central. The Detroit Tigers have floundered. The Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox both entered the day with below-.500 records. Kansas City trailed the Minnesota Twins by only one game.
And yet …
“I guess that’s true, but when you go through a slump like this, there’s nothing comfortable about it,” Yost said. “It’s not fun.”
In the first inning, the Royals did something they had not accomplished since Wednesday: They got a lead.
Escobar opened the first with a single against Texas right-hander Colby Lewis. After a hit by Moustakas, Escobar scored on a sacrifice fly by Hosmer. An inning later, Escobar provided a sacrifice fly to bring home Infante. When Morales mashed a double in the fifth, Escobar sprinted home from first.
The advantage held until the eighth. Lewis departed in favor of Kela, a 22-year-old right-hander. With two outs, Perez expected a first-pitch fastball. Instead he whiffed on a curveball. He fouled back another curve.
In the dugout, Yost sent up a two-strike prayer.
“I’m thinking, just make a mistake to Salvy right here,” Yost said. “Don’t throw him another slider in the dirt. And as soon as he hit it, that ball wasn’t 3 inches off his bat and I was screaming, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ And then I started screaming, ‘Get up!’ Because I wasn’t sure if it was going to get out.”
Perez felt the same way. Then he saw the reaction in the bullpen. He heard the roar of the crowd. He felt the appreciation of his teammates.
After stumbling for nearly two weeks, the team had reason to celebrate. The existence of momentum in this game is debatable, but the Royals were believers on Sunday afternoon.
“I think it’s going to be a big win for us today,” Perez said. “Win, happy flight, and we see tomorrow. We’ll go play hard versus Minnesota and try to win. We’re going to do everything we can to win the games and win the series.”