The Royals have made a reputation for themselves by playing their best baseball when the stakes are highest. Heading into a three-game weekend series with the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, it was clear that the 20-20 Royals needed to make a statement.
On Friday night, they got off to the start they were looking for by patiently waiting out Jose Quintana, who has been one of baseball's best pitchers so far this year. A sixth-inning offensive burst gave a stout Dillon Gee all the run support he needed, and the bullpen shut down the White Sox over the final four innings to close out a 4-1 victory.
Gee, making his second start of the year, was tagged for an early run in the second inning. Melky Cabrera led off with a single, and Kansas City fan favorite Brett Lawrie was plunked by Gee to put two on with none out. After a fielder's choice, Gee was squeezed by home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, as he appeared to strike out Alex Avila on two different occasions, but both pitches were called balls. Avila walked, and Austin Jackson drove in Cabrera on a sacrifice fly.
With his offense struggling, it was important that Gee kept the deficit at one run. He did just that by escaping two separate jams over the next two innings. In the third, he struck out Lawrie with two on to end a threat. In the fourth, he got Adam Eaton to ground into a fielder's choice to strand two more runners. The White Sox had multiple opportunities to tack on valuable runs while Quintana was putting up zeroes. It wound up costing them mightily.
The sixth-inning breakout was stunning. Quintana allowed just one baserunner in the first five innings, breezing through the Royals with ease. Out of nowhere, beginning with the bottom of the order, each Kansas City hitter suddenly started putting great swings on seemingly every pitch Quintana threw. With one out, Omar Infante doubled to left field. Paulo Orlando traded places with him in the next at-bat, tying the game at one with a double to right. After Alcides Escobar reached on an infield single, Lorenzo Cain broke the tie by lining a double to the wall in left. In a flash, the Royals had gone from one baserunner in five innings to having a lead.
Later in the inning, Kendrys Morales provided an insurance run by singling home Cain. In the seventh, Alex Gordon and Cheslor Cuthbert lined back-to-back singles, which knocked Quintana from the game after a sacrifice bunt by Infante. Orlando drove in the Royals fourth run when he singled to right, plating Gordon.
Quintana's final line: 6.1 innings, eight hits (a season high), and four runs (also a season high). He threw 91 pitches, which is the fewest he's thrown in any of his nine starts this season. He didn't walk a Royal, and he struck out five.
Following the Royals sixth-inning outburst, Gee was already in line for the win, so Ned Yost went straight to the bullpen. Gee pitched very well, though. In 5.0 innings, he allowed four hits and one walk. He surrendered just one run while striking out five White Sox, four of which were looking.
As far as the Royals bullpen, the four-headed monster of Luke Hochevar, Joakim Soria, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis shut down the White Sox with little trouble. Hochevar worked around a two-out walk in the sixth. Soria used a flashy double play turned by Escobar to escape the seventh. Herrera breezed through the eighth, striking out Lawrie looking with a nasty slider. And in the ninth, Davis slammed the door by pitching a scoreless frame.
Gee (1-1) earned the win. Quintana (5-3) took the loss. Davis collected his 10th save of the season.
In all, the pitching staff, which has been significantly better in the last week, held the White Sox to just six hits on the night.
The Royals are 21-20. The White Sox are 25-17. Chicago's lead in the American League Central is down to 3.5 games.
Tomorrow: Danny Duffy and Miguel Gonzalez (0-0, 5.17 ERA). While Chris Sale has been the AL's best starter and Quintana has been good this year, Chicago's other three rotation spots haven't been good. In fact, in the last seven games where Chris Sale hasn't started, the White Sox are 0-7. The Royals should certainly be able to take at least one of the next two games.