For what it’s worth, and it’s certainly worth something within the context of this mess of a season, the KC Royals start today somewhere they haven’t been for a long time.
Out of last place.
Yes, for the first time since May 28, the Royals aren’t American League Central cellar-dwellers. Sunday’s 4-2 series-clinching victory over Tampa Bay, combined with Detroit’s loss to Minnesota, moved the Royals into, and the Tigers out of, fourth place. Detroit now owns the basement.
But complacency in their new position is something the Royals can’t afford. Not with Shohei Ohtani and the Angels in town for the three-game series the teams open tonight at Kauffman Stadium; the Angels may be struggling and underachieving this season, but they’re a potent bunch.
First things first, however. How Kansas City won Sunday is a story worth telling.
The KC Royals did just about everything right Sunday at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals won this one by doing what they haven’t done most of the season—combine excellent pitching with clutch hitting.
Perhaps most significant was the continued improvement of starter Kris Bubic. The lefthander began July with a 7.45 ERA and only one win in six decisions, and had pitched through the sixth inning only once.
July, though, has been better for Bubic. Although he’s 0-1 this month and the Royals had lost all four of his July starts entering Sunday, he’d pitched well enough to keep them in those games: the club lost them by an average of only two runs. And he held Toronto scoreless for seven innings his last time out.
Making his first second-half start Sunday, Bubic went a full seven innings again and scattered four hits. He wasn’t overwhelming—he struck out four, walked three, and one of those four hits was a homer—but he held the Rays to two runs, retired them in order twice, never faced more than four batters in an inning, and lowered his July and season ERAs to 3.03 and 5.53
And despite not using Scott Barlow, who threw two innings and won KC’s 6-3 victory Saturday, and Josh Staumont, the Royals’ bullpen wasn’t as shaky as it’s been. Dylan Coleman allowed a hit but nothing else in the eighth, and Taylor Clarke dispatched the Rays in order in the ninth to seal the win.
It was a victory to which timely two-out hitting in the seventh and eighth opened the door.
Kansas City, not known for sustained clutch hitting this season, entered its half of the seventh with the contest tied 2-2. MJ Melendez struck out and Whit Merrifield singled, but Andrew Benintendi made the second out by flying to former Royal Brett Phillips in center. Nicky Lopez, who started the game on the bench but took over for Bobby Witt Jr. at shortstop when a tight hamstring forced Witt out after the first inning, singled Merrifield to second. Hunter Dozier drove Merrifield home with a single of his own to give the Royals a one-run lead.
They extended that margin by one with another two-out hit in the eighth, a Melendez double down the left field line that scored Michael A. Taylor.
So, two vital ingredients too often missing this year—solid pitching all the way through and timely hitting—enabled Kansas City to get out of the division cellar.
Whether the Royals ultimately spare themselves a last place finish, an important thing to do, remains to be seen. And although moving up a bit in the standings won’t trigger a playoff run—this team isn’t yet the kind capable of overcoming a 12.5 game deficit in the Wild Card race—it’s improving. With seven games left until August, the club’s 11 July wins already equal their total for June
The Royals are out of last place.