KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The first curveball froze him. The second curveball fooled him into taking an unsightly swing. It was the third curveball that Alcides Escobar saw in the seventh inning of the Royals' eighth victory in a row that vindicated him and helped transport him and his teammates into first place.
When Oakland starter Sonny Gray utilized his breaking ball for the third consecutive pitch, Escobar appeared ready. He cracked the pitch into center field, plating pinch-runner Nori Aoki and pushing across the go-ahead run in a 3-2 victory at Kauffman Stadium.
And so the Royals (64-53) lead the American League Central on their latest date since Aug. 29, 2003. The victory capped an idyllic evening. About an hour before the game, the club announced the acquisition of Minnesota outfielder Josh Willingham, who fills a power-hitting void on the roster. Shortly thereafter, they watched Detroit continue its downward dive.
Kansas City's winning streak coincides with a disastrous few days for the Tigers. On Friday, starter Anibal Sanchez strained a pectoral muscle. On Saturday, former Royal Joakim Soria strained an oblique. Each could miss a month. And a day after razing their bullpen in a 19-inning loss to Toronto, Detroit saw Justin Verlander depart his start after one inning because of pain in his shoulder.
The Royals pulled ahead thanks to their usual combination: Stalwart starting pitching, suffocating work from the bullpen trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, and a few pieces of timely hitting. Escobar contributed a pair of two-out, RBI singles when down 0-2 in the count.
Yordano Ventura allowed four walks, but held the Athletics to two runs on two hits. He matched Gray, who has been handed losses by the Royals twice this month.
The matchup on Monday pitted the team with baseball's best record and the team with baseball's longest ongoing winning streak. Before the game, the opposing managers exchanged a bit of playful banter. Each crossed a milestone recently. Last week in Arizona, Ned Yost collected his 800th victory. This past weekend, Oakland skipper Bob Melvin achieved the same.
The duo worked on the same staff during the 2012 All-Star Game here, but their relationship is minimal.
"We haven't had sleepovers or anything," Yost quipped.
"I would concur," Melvin responded, when informed of Yost's line. "No sleepovers. Nor will there be."
Instead, the two teams staged yet another pitchers' duel. Save for one blighted inning, the Royals suppressed Oakland's offense in their O.co Coliseum showdown two weeks ago. Kansas City escaped with a series victory and confidence heading into the rematch.
A first-inning break led to a run. Jarrod Dyson opened the proceedings with a single, and Omar Infante followed by dunking another hit into right. Outfielder Josh Reddick scooped the ball and prepared to relay it in -- except the ball squirted from his hand, and hit the grass.
Dyson took third. His advancement was important. Because Salvador Perez slapped the second pitch he saw into a double play, but one that brought Dyson home. The unearned run gave Ventura an early lead.
When the Royals faced Gray on Aug. 1, they managed only three hits in seven innings. Their lone run arose from a solo shot by Raul Ibanez. Through two innings on Monday, they had amassed five hits and two runs.
The second tally occurred thanks to a trio of hits. Alex Gordon shot a single up the middle through Oakland's shift. With two outs, Mike Moustakas pulled a hit through another shift. Escobar capped the sequence by lining an RBI hit up the middle.
In the third, Ventura lost his connection with the strike zone. He stuffed fastballs too far inside against Coco Crisp. He missed up and down against Josh Donaldson. After a leadoff single, the two walks loaded the bases. Brandon Moss tied the game by stroking a 97-mph fastball back up the middle for a two-run knock.
Ventura would not break. He settled into a groove, and retired nine of the last 10 batters he faced. In the sixth, Moss coaxed another free pass out of Ventura. The rookie responded by missing the barrel of All-Star catcher Derek Norris, who grounded into an inning-ending double play.
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