KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was late on a muggy Sunday afternoon, “Star Wars” Day at Kauffman Stadium, and an actor playing the character Darth Maul was engaging in a footrace with a preteen along the right-field line. As the action whipped the surrounding fans into a minor frenzy, Kris Medlen quietly stepped to the top of the dugout stairs and jogged briskly toward the pitcher’s mound.
It was the top of the seventh inning, and Medlen had already offered 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief against the Chicago White Sox. But with the Royals holding a one-run lead, and nothing happening in the Royals’ bullpen, Medlen was ready to do a little more.
“It’s the best I’ve felt,” Medlen said.
By the end of the day, Medlen had thrown 45 pitches and put up 3 2/3 innings of hitless relief, saving the Royals from a shaky effort from starter Danny Duffy in a 5-4 victory over the Chicago White Sox.
The Royals would plate the winning run in the eighth after Paulo Orlando — recalled from Class AAA Omaha on Sunday morning — sparked a rally with a booming ground-rule double to deep left-center. Moments later. Omar Infante hit a slow dribbler to first, and Alex Rios slid into home under the tag from White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers.
The moment roused Kauffman Stadium on a brutally humid afternoon — and the performances from Medlen and Orlando defined the final win in a three-game sweep over Chicago. As Medlen and the Royal cooled off in the clubhouse in the moments after the game, Kansas City sat a 66-44 and owned a season-high 11 1/2-game lead in the American League Central.
“Being a part of this bullpen, those are the kind of expectations that they have for those guys out there,” Medlen said.
While the victory gave the Royals a five-game cushion atop all of the American League, it also offered a window into the possible value of Medlen, who worked a season-high 3 2/3 innings after debuting with the Royals in late July. When Royals and general manager Dayton Moore signed Medlen to a two-year deal last December, they did so for both the present and for the future. Medlen, returning from his second Tommy John surgery, would need an extended rehab before being able to contribute in 2015. But on Sunday, in his fifth appearance for the Royals, Medlen repaid that patience, resembling the dependable starter that excelled for the Atlanta Braves in parts of 2012 and 2013.
“He was absolutely fantastic,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “That’s the reason Dayton has the vision that he has, to lock this guy up for two years, knowing that he would probably miss half the year and get his feet back on the ground and be back to who he was … next year.”
Medlen finally debuted for the Royals on July 20, but the ensuing weeks have been a mental war, a period of sitting and waiting. Before Sunday, Medlen had thrown just four times. To stay sharp, Medlen said, he upped his conditioning regimen and focused on a quiet drill where he works through his delivery with a ball in his hand and his eyes closed.
“That’s the best way to get a feel for everything,” Medlen said. “Just close your eyes and go through your delivery. You can feel it instead of see it.”
On Sunday, Medlen could feel it. He finished with three strikeouts, worked efficiently and escaped a jam in the fourth when he replaced Duffy with one out and runners at the corners.
The decision to pull Duffy after 3 1/3 innings came quick — it was Duffy’s shortest outing since May 6 — but Yost believed the hot conditions had sapped Duffy and had caused him to lose his release point.
“He’s a heavy sweater,” Yost said. “Not a heavy sweater that you wear, but a heavy sweater that sweats. I just think the heat got to him a little bit.”
Duffy shrugged off the heat excuse, He lost something in his delivery, he said, and he couldn’t get it back. It was a curious performance for a pitcher who had logged a 2.51 ERA in July and, after a brief hiccup in Toronto, had limited Detroit to one run in seven innings in his last start. But Duffy believed it was just a blip.
“I know what I can do,” Duffy said. “Today was just one of those days. I’ve really found my slot, and what I want to do and what I’m capable of.
The Royals struck early in the bottom of the first. Eric Hosmer scored one with a one-out double in the right-center gap, and designated hitter Kendrys Morales made White Sox starter Jose Quintana pay with an opposite-field blast to right. On a 1-2 count, Quintana left a 93-mph four-seam fastball over the middle of the plate. Morales took a rip at the high fastball and crushed a 394-foot homer over the wall in right.
Duffy, meanwhile, breezed through two innings before spinning out in the third. Duffy opened the inning by issuing a walk and hitting a batter, and after two base hits and a wild pitch, the White Sox had tied the game 3-3.
The Royals would break a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the fifth, when Ben Zobrist singled up the middle against Quintana, scoring Jarrod Dyson from second. Zobrist, who was making his first start at third base since 2010, beat Quintana on a single up the middle after going down 0-2.
But White Sox would tie the score in the top of the eighth, nicking reliever Kelvin Herrera for a run on a sharp single from former Royal Melky Cabrera. That set up the Royals’ rally in the eighth, and with Wade Davis battling a tender back and Greg Holland having pitched back-to-back days, Yost turned to Ryan Madson to record his second save of the season.
Inside the clubhouse, Medlen stood by his locker after his longer regular-season outing since Sept. 27, 2013. On that day, he threw eight scoreless innings against the Phillies, outdueling Cliff Lee. Nearly two years later, after a return from another Tommy John, this felt good, too.
“Coming back from injury and all that stuff, you’ve got to show them that you can go out there and get outs,” Medlen said. “So hopefully I’ve bought myself a couple more innings.”