Royals Close in on Playoff Spot with 6-3 Win over White Sox

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In the second inning of Thursday night’s game in Chicago, Royals fans were criticizing how their rock-solid ace was “unclutch.”

In the fourth inning, some took to Twitter to discus the probability that the team collapses entirely in the last four days of the season.

By the time the game was over, the entire fanbase was elated that their team was on the doorstep of the once inconceivable – the longest playoff drought in North American professional history is only hours away from being no more.

Led by offensive outbursts by Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer, the Royals doubled up the White Sox 6-3 in an impressive comeback effort. The victory dropped their magic number to clinch a playoff spot to just one game, meaning the team would clinch with a win tomorrow night.

“It’s not over yet,” remarked a calm-looking Lorenzo Cain after the game. “We still have work to do,” added Hosmer.

ESPN and Frangraphs both list the Royals’ playoff odds at 99.9%. However, considering everything that has gone wrong for the franchise in the last 28 seasons, there will be no celebrating until this thing is final.

Kansas City wasted little time getting James Shields run support. Cain doubled off of Chicago starter Jose Quintana in the first inning, and he would score on Hosmer’s single back up the middle. The White Sox would tag Shields for three runs in the next three innings, including a two-run homer by Josh Phegley in the second frame.

Shields, who has been a model of consistency in the second half of the season, had arguably his roughest outing since early July. Struggling with command, he was unable to put hitters away after getting two strikes on them, which is how his pitch count rose to 91 after just four innings. When he appeared to be on the brink of implosion, Shields managed to work through the fifth and sixth innings without blemish, just enough to earn him with his 15th quality start in his last 16 chances. His final line: six innings, five hits, three runs, two walks, and four strikeouts. He threw 112 pitches.

Down 3-1, Kansas City would need to dig deep to get its ace off the hook. Salvador Perez led off the fifth frame with a triple, but after consecutive strike outs by Omar Infante and Mike Moustakas, the Royals appeared primed to leave him stranded. Alcides Escobar came through with a two-out single to right field, trimming the White Sox’ deficit to 3-2. One inning later, Hosmer tied the game by clobbering a hanging breaking ball over the right field fence for his ninth home run of the season. The blast won a lucky Belton, MO resident $7,400 in the “Sonic Slam” contest, marking the first home run hit by a Royal in the sixth inning since June 16 (74 games).

Since September 14, Hosmer is hitting .421 (16 for 38) with eight extra-base hits and an OPS of 1.225. It’s no coincidence that the team’s lift in offensive production has coincided with the Gold Glove first baseman’s surge.

The eighth inning, though, would be where the game was decided. After Kelvin Herrera stranded two White Sox to end the seventh, singles by Cain and Hosmer put runners on the corners with one out. Quintana was pulled, and Billy Butler stepped in against reliever Jake Petricka. The DH promptly rolled the first pitch right to shortstop Alexi Ramirez, who started what appeared to be an easy inning-ending double play. A hard slide by Hosmer rushed second baseman Marcus Semien just enough that he made a low throw, one that Jose Abreu was unable to dig out of the dirt at first base. Butler was safe on the fielder’s choice, and Cain crossed the plate to give Kansas City a 4-3 lead.

It was the most anti-Royal play of all time. So many times, Royals fans have seen the second baseman make a flawless throw to complete the double play, washing away a scoring threat. This time, however, the break went Kansas City’s way.

Butler was replaced by pinch-runner Terrance Gore, who stole second base and scored an insurance run on Alex Gordon’s hit later in the inning. Cain provided a sixth run in the ninth inning with a two-out grounder back up the middle. The Royals’ center fielder tied a career best in hits, finishing 4-5 with two doubles and two runs scored.

Herrera (4-3) earned the win after pitching a shutout seventh. Greg Holland worked around a leadoff walk to pick up his 45th save in 47 chances. Jose Quintana (9-11) took the loss for Chicago, allowing 11 hits while striking out seven over 7.1 innings. The lefty has still never beaten the Royals, posting an 0-7 record in 12 career starts against Kansas City.

The Royals are now 6-1 at U.S. Cellular Field this season. They are 11-5 against Chicago in all.

Shields concludes the season with a 14-8 record and 227.0 innings thrown, his ninth consecutive year with at least 200. His 2014 final numbers are extremely similar to the statistics he posted a season ago. After throwing 228.2 frames last year, the combined 455.2 innings of work are the most in baseball since the beginning of 2013. While his 44 walks are his fewest since 2008, his 180 strikeouts make the smallest total he’s had since 2009. His WHIP is slightly better than it was last year (1.18 to 1.24), while his ERA is a tick worse (3.21 to 3.15). Overall, it was another James Shields-type of season – tons of innings, a good ERA, and a lot of gutsy performances. He’s been everything the Royals have hoped since he was acquired in “The Trade.”

Shields’ next start will certainly be his biggest as a Royal, as Kansas City appears to be on a collision course with Jon Lester and the Oakland A’s for Tuesday’s AL Wild Card game. Shields hasn’t put up pretty numbers in his six career postseason starts – a 2-4 record with an ERA of 4.98. His last October start came with the Rays in 2011, when he allowed seven runs over five innings in a loss to the Texas Rangers.

Tuesday night’s game is exactly why the Royals brought James Shields to Kansas City. It will inevitably be the biggest moment for Royals baseball in the last 29 years. For now, though, let’s get one more win – just to ensure we get there first.

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Author: Ryan Landreth

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