Escobar Leads Royals to First

Ryan Landreth

The Kansas City Royals are in first place in the AL Central. By themselves. In August.

Seriously – I checked ESPN. It’s right here, in case you don’t believe me.

In a season full of ups and downs, the Royals’ eighth straight win on Monday night provided the highest ‘up’ yet.

Coupled with the Tigers’ disastrous performance in Pittsburgh, the Royals leapfrogged Detroit in the division standings after their 3-2 win against the Oakland A’s on Monday night. The Tigers, one day removed after using everyone in their bullpen in a 19-inning loss in Toronto, saw starter Justin Verlander depart after just one inning, giving up five runs in the process.

As a result, the 64-53 Royals, 11 games over .500 for the first time since 2003, find themselves atop the AL Central standings for the first time since June 20. The bleeding Tigers, now losers of six of their last eight, are falling apart as they enter the home stretch of the season.

Led by Alcides Escobar, Kansas City’s offense did just enough against A’s starter Sonny Gray. After Gray limited the Royals to just three hits back in a start on August 1, he dodged constant literal bullets for the first two innings. Jarrod Dyson and Omar Infante opened the game with consecutive singles, with Dyson advancing to third on an error on right fielder Josh Reddick. He would score on Salvador Perez’ double play. The Royals added a second run the next inning when Escobar singled home Alex Gordon, making the score 2-0.

Gray would limit the Royals hitless for the next 4 2/3 innings. To open the seventh frame, Lorenzo Cain reached with a walk, and swapped places with Raul Ibanez after a fielder’s choice. Ned Yost sent pinch runner Nori Aoki to run for Ibanez, and he advanced to second on Moustakas’ groundout. Needing a clutch hit against one of the best pitchers in the AL, Escobar came through again, lining a single into left-center field to plate the go-ahead run. After the run scored, Escobar pumped his fist at the Royals dugout. Behind the crowd and the circumstances, it was hard not for even the usually-calm Escobar to get fired up.

Kansas City starter Yordano Ventura once again lacked his best command, but still managed to hold Oakland to two runs over six innings. Logging yet another quality start, Ventura struck out five and walked four, allowing only two hits. He retired 9 of the final 10 hitters he faced following Brandon Moss’ third-inning single that plated two runs to tie the game.

As usual, the Royals’ bullpen was lights-out. Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis worked flawless seventh and eighth innings, striking out four of the six hitters they combined to face.

When closer Greg Holland entered for the ninth inning, things got a lot more tense. Without a hit since the third inning, Oakland ignited a rally when Josh Donaldson led off the frame with a single. Holland, lacking his usual superb command as of late, then walked Brandon Moss to put two on with nobody out.

The Pirates had just beaten the Tigers. The Royals were three outs away from moving back into first place. As the crowd of over 21,000 stood on their feet, they couldn’t help but wonder if now would be when the “same old Royals” would show back up.

Not now. Not yet. Hopefully not ever.

Holland settled down, inducing Derek Norris to ground into a 5-3 double play. With a runner in scoring position and only needing one more out, every fan at Kauffman Stadium was standing in anticipation. Holland got the job done, getting Stephen Vogt to fly out to center to end the game, and lock down his AL-best 35th save of the year.

After catching the final out, Dyson performed a celebratory backflip. Korean sensation SungWoo Lee made his way out on top of the Royals Hall of Fame, dancing and jumping around before hanging the Royals’ trademark “W” on the building.

Eight wins in a row. 16 of 19. Just another step and day closer to ending the longest playoff drought in North America sports history.

The Royals and Tigers are once again locked into a battle for first place in the AL Central. Considering how many teams are competing for the Wild Card spots, the goal for both squads is clear – win the division.

It doesn’t get any easier for Detroit, who have already placed two pitchers on the DL in the last 48 hours. Verlander’s fastball velocity averaged an alarming 89 mph on Monday night, and he will be evaluated for right shoulder soreness on Tuesday. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they find themselves needing to escape their tailspin while facing the Pirates, who have posted the best record in the majors since May 22.

Meanwhile, the Royals continue their series with the A’s on Tuesday night when Jeremy Guthrie (8-9, 4.35 ERA) faces Royal killer Jon Lester (12-7, 2.44), proving how cruel baseball can be. Kansas City finally climbs into first place in August for the first time in 10 years, and its next opposing pitcher is a guy who has a 1.65 career ERA against them.

As they have all year, the Royals must persevere regardless of how unlikely success may appear. At this point, considering how well everything is going for this club, I’m not sure I’d advise betting against them.

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