KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ned Yost sauntered through the Royals dugout, locked eyes with All-Star shortstop Alcides Escobar and wagged his right index finger. The duo slapped hands just moments after Escobar played a critical role in one of the most efficient, most effective defensive plays of the season in a 6-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers.
The finger-wagging gesture was made famous by longtime NBA center Dikembe Mutombo, who swatted the shots of opponents out of the sky and chastised them for their impudence. In the lexicon of Kansas City, the translation shifts ever so slightly: You do not try to run on the Royals — even when their manager thinks you should.
“I didn’t think they had a chance to get him, and I was shocked that they did,” Yost said.
Detroit learned that lesson in Tuesday’s fourth inning, when Jarrod Dyson, Escobar and Salvador Perez connected on a picture-perfect 7-6-2 play at the plate. The defense stabilized Yordano Ventura during his six scoreless innings, and it allowed the Royals to leap ahead late with a pair of sixth-inning homers.
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Eric Hosmer sparked the scoring with a two-run homer in the first inning. Five frames later, Lorenzo Cain tattooed a solo shot and Mike Moustakas followed with a two-run blast of his own. Moustakas snapped an o-for-18 skid with his homer, and added an RBI single in the eighth. Onward Kansas City (68-44) went, collecting its fifth straight victory, all five over American League Central foes.
Ventura (7-7, 4.97 ERA) tied a career-high with six walks but steadied himself by matching a season high with eight strikeouts. He gave up only two hits.
“He said he thought his breaking ball was good,” said Jeremy Guthrie, who translated for Ventura. “He was trying really hard to establish his hard stuff inside, his fastball. For the most part, he thought he was able to do that.”
The Tigers scored a run off reliever Franklin Morales in the seventh, but even then Paulo Orlando tracked down a potential two-run hit from second baseman Ian Kinsler and turned it into a flyball out. Luke Hochevar picked up the save by recording the last eight outs of the game.
The day started in festive fashion. A few hours before the first pitch, the Royals received a visit from rapper Fetty Wap, the creator of the recent hit, “Trap Queen,” and his crew, Remy Boyz. As a way to amuse themselves last month, the players threatened to fine one another $100 if in postgame interviews they did not use the numbers 1738, which Fetty Wap shouts at the beginning of “Trap Queen.” The frivolity went viral, briefly.
The rapper and his friends found time to visit the park on Tuesday. They bought hats and jerseys from the Kauffman Stadium store and descended on the indoor batting cage to meet several Royals. A group of journalists gawked outside and filmed the scene.
Eventually, the group pulled a shade down and blocked out the view. So prying eyes could not see the rappers taking some hacks inside the cage.
“Lots of swings and misses,” Cain said.
The trappings of a double-digit division lead involve both off-field levity and the reduction of on-field strain. Manager Ned Yost can rest his bullpen with fewer consequences during these games. He can also find off days for his starters. Yost has been pondering how he can find a start for Kris Medlen before October.
The Royals can relax, because their talent outstrips the talent of their foes. They coasted to another first-inning advantage on Tuesday evening.
With two outs, Cain cracked a fastball up the middle for a single. Sanchez pumped two fastballs at Hosmer. The first one resulted in foul ball. Hosmer powered the second for an opposite-field shot into the Royals bullpen.
Ventura battled some control issues in the first three frames, but kept the Tigers hitless. When he finally did allow a hit, his defense flexed their might. First, Detroit outfielder Tyler Collins slashed a drive into the wide expanse of left center field. The trajectory of the baseball suggested a sure-file double. But Cain ran down the baseball and fired back toward the diamond in time to hold Collins at first.
A fielder’s choice by catcher James McCann granted him first base in Collins’ place soon after. With two outs, Ventura fed first baseman Jefry Marte a 98-mph fastball down the middle. Marte smacked a double into left field. From here, the defensive supremacy of the Royals took center stage.
“I honestly didn’t think they had a chance at all,” Cain said. “I thought that guy was scoring, all the way. I don’t know what I was thinking. With Esky – I mean, that guy has a cannon.”
The ball bounced off the wall. Dyson scooped it with his bare hand. He whirled and found Escobar in shallow left field. He spun and threw on a line to Perez. McCann saw the throw arrive before he did. He jumped to avoid the tag. Perez touched McCann’s left leg for the out.
“The whole thing revolves around Esky,” Yost said. “But Dyson’s an important part of it, too. Because Dyson has to get the ball to Esky in an area where he doesn’t have to go two steps to his left, right, have to jump or pick the ball.
“He’s got to give it to him so Esky can turn and throw home. And Esky’s as good as anybody in the game at doing that.”
A couple feet behind the plate, Ventura pumped his fist and pounded his glove. The defense allowed him to maintain his grip on the game. An inning later, Perez caught outfielder Anthony Gose napping at first base and picked him off. In the eighth inning, Perez would exit due to a sore wrist.
On his final pitch of the evening, Ventura again benefited from the men behind him. He had issued two walks in the sixth, so there were two on when McCann stung a grounder to the left side of the infield. Escobar sprawled to corral the baseball. He threw from his knees to second base for the third out.
“That guy hit that ball really hard,” Escobar said. “I just threw up my glove and tried to catch the ball. And I said, ‘Oh, I got it.’”