It's become a familiar pattern in this young 2016 baseball season for the Royals: score early runs, let your opponent claw back but not quite pull even, and lockdown over the later half of the game behind a stout bullpen.
That strategy was executed to perfection on Friday night, as the Royals doubled up the Oakland Athletics 4-2 for a series-opening win. Kansas City ran its winning streak to a season-best four games, climbing to 8-2 in the process.
But this time, there was a bit of an exclamation point stamped by a Royals hitter, providing the dagger in what was a one-run game for awhile.
For the third time in the last four games, the Royals' offense struck in the top of the first inning. Facing Oakland starter Rich Hill, Alcides Escobar led off the night by drawing his first walk of the season. After an infield single by Omar Infante, Lorenzo Cain lined a single into right field to plate Escobar. In the next at-bat, Infante came home on Eric Hosmer's double play.
Stephen Vogt hit a solo homer off Edinson Volquez in the second to cut the deficit to 2-1, but the Royals got the run right back in the top of the third. Cain walked to lead off the frame, and he advanced to second on Hosmer's groundout. Kendrys Morales then roped a single back up the middle to plate Cain, giving the Royals a 3-1 advantage.
The RBI was the 500th of Kendrys Morales' MLB career.
In the fourth, the A's once again got back within one run in identical fashion to the way the third inning went for the Royals. Oakland's leadoff man, Vogt, led off with a single. He advanced to second on a groundout back to the pitcher, and he scored on an RBI single back up the middle, this one by Khris Davis.
For the third time in three games this year, Edinson Volquez posted a quality start. The Royals' ace yielded four hits in his 6.0 innings of work. He labored through shaky command all evening (just 59 of his 103 pitches were strikes), as it was clear from the beginning that he didn't have his best stuff. Volquez struck out just two batters while walking four, but he allowed just two runs against a struggling A's offense. Through three games in 2016, Volquez' ERA sits at a sparkling 2.04.
Oakland's starter didn't fare quite as well as Volquez. Rich Hill was plastered for nine hits in just 4.1 innings, but he limited the damage as best he could for the most part. He could have given up a lot more than the three runs he did. He did manage to strike out six Royals, but he walked three and needed 106 pitches to log 13 outs.
In the seventh inning, the Royals' bullpen took over, and the results were typical. Kelvin Herrera overwhelmed the A's to work through the frame, allowing just a single and striking out one. Joakim Soria made the eighth inning interesting, but he stranded a pair to get through a clean frame.
Then, Eric Hosmer killed a baseball. Facing Oakland closer Sean Doolittle, Hosmer exploded on a 1-1 fastball, crushing the pitch over the wall in dead center field. His first home run of the year doubled the Royals lead, giving Wade Davis even more breathing room than he needed.
Davis worked a perfect ninth inning to close out the game, giving him his AL-leading fifth save of the season. He is 25-for-25 in his career in save opportunities. It was encouraging to see him work just his second 1-2-3 inning of the year.
Volquez (2-0) scored the win, while Hill (1-2) took the loss.
With a 4-1 record through five games of a seven-game road week, Kansas City clinched a winning trip.
Mike Moustakas sat out the game because of a sore hamstring, but Ned Yost anticipates him returning to the lineup tomorrow. Meanwhile, Salvador Perez is expected to get a well-deserved day off.
If there's one thing to be negative about, it's that Royals hitters struck out a whopping 13 times on Friday night. As a team, the Royals are averaging more than eight strikeouts per game. This is still better than over half the teams in the league, but for the last five years, Kansas City averaged fewer than 6.5 strikeouts per contest. Obviously, it's still early, so there's plenty of time for that to slow down.
Kansas City picked up its fifth straight win against Oakland. The Royals haven't lost at the O.co Coliseum since August 2, 2014. They've also won 12 of the last 15 games overall against the Athletics.
Tomorrow, the Royals will go for the series behind Chris Young (0-2, 7.45). Kansas City is 8-0 in games not started by Young, and 0-2 when he takes the ball. He'll look to get off the struggle bus tomorrow when he opposes Oakland ace Sonny Gray (1-1, 2.70). Gray is a fantastic pitcher, but the A's have lost all three of his career starts against the Royals.