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K.C. relievers nail down 3-2 win over the Cards

6/6/2014

By ANDY McCULLOUGH

By ANDY McCULLOUGH

McClatchy-Tribune

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- He had gone 60 days between major-league appearances, first felled by a bruised finger, and then stranded on a rehabilitation assignment by a Royals club in little hurry to return him to this level. He lacks a certified role in the team's bullpen, and serves as just another arm in their middle-relief muddle.

Francisley Bueno entered in the seventh inning of a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals assigned a simple but vital task: Serve as the bridge between starter Yordano Ventura and the club's wipeout, late-game duo of Wade Davis and Greg Holland.

"It wasn't a small thing," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "That was a huge thing right there."

Yost spends each day strategizing how to entrust those two relievers with a lead, and he turned to Bueno because he lacked suitable alternatives. He felt uncomfortable utilizing Ventura for a seventh inning, not in his first back after missing an outing due to elbow pain.

Who in the bullpen could bridge the gap? Kelvin Herrera had crumbled the night before. Aaron Crow was unavailable due to recent usage. Wilking Rodriguez is a rookie with an inning of big-league experience, Michael Mariot carries a 6.52 ERA and Tim Collins has devolved into a pint-sized can of gas.

So it was up to Bueno, a 33-year-old Cuban southpaw. His focus was "throwing down" in the strike zone, he said, and the results displayed his effectiveness. He induced a pair of groundouts. He froze utility infielder Daniel Descalso with an 88-mph fastball for the third out.

"I wanted to make a good pitch, for the team win," Bueno said.

As he left the field, he raised his hands skyward and slapped his glove. Davis and Holland buzzed through the final two innings, and the Royals (29-31) captured their third victory in four games of this I-70 Series.

"Any time you can take three out of four from the Cardinals," Holland said, "it means a lot."

On Wednesday, the Royals waited nine innings before denting Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. The comeback only heightened the frustration of the eventual result, when Herrera and Collins imploded in extra innings. A day later, Michael Wacha, Wainwright's 22-year-old counterpart, stifled his hosts in similar fashion.

Wacha throws a curveball, but it does not carry the potential for humiliation like Wainwright's does. He also wobbled earlier than his veteran teammate. The Royals pecked out three runs in the sixth inning thanks to a pair of doubles and a trio of singles.

The extra-base hits opened the flurry. After Alcides Escobar's double, Nori Aoki notched the Royals' first run by slicing an RBI double just inside the left-field line. Aoki advanced to third on a groundout, so Cardinals manager Mike Matheny drew his infield closer.

The positioning backfired. Eric Hosmer rolled a single into right to tie the game. Alex Gordon floated another two-out hit, and Perez hopped the go-ahead hit up the middle soon after. The scoring put Ventura in line for the first victory of his career at Kauffman Stadium.

"To get the win here," Hosmer said, "and beat them for the series was real big for this team."

Ten days ago, Ventura walked off the mound midway through the game with assistant trainer Kyle Turner by his side. He complained of elbow pain. Alarm bells rang, even after an MRI determined no structural damage to Ventura's ulnar collateral ligament.

Even after Ventura skipped one start, Yost opted for a disdainful tone. "It wasn't an elbow injury," he said a few hours before the game, even if the team's medical staff disagreed. The valgus extension overload occurred when the bones in Ventura's elbow collided as he threw his fastball. His velocity dipped as low as 91 mph during that fretful start against the Astros.

The club placed no restrictions on Ventura for Thursday. Yost estimated he could throw more than 100 pitches. Even so, he conceded, "we'll have our eyes closely on him all day long." Ventura insisted afterward he felt nothing unusual during his 91-pitch outing, save for the jitters wrought by his time away from the mound.

"He doesn't feel any pain or anything," said Bruce Chen, who translated for Ventura. "And he goes to keep working in the training room for the rest of the season so everything stays healthy."

Ventura conveyed reasons for optimism at the start. He touched 100 mph in the first inning. Less encouraging was his command. He worked around a single and a walk in the first, but St. Louis tagged him for a two-out run in the second.

Part of the responsibility falls with Lorenzo Cain. He undershot a line drive from outfielder Peter Bourjos, which rolled past him for an RBI triple. Bourjos had belted a 96-mph fastball, which can be quite vulnerable when thrown belt-high.

Ventura surrendered another tally with two outs in the fourth. Jon Jay singled on a 94-mph fastball. Ventura buried Bourjos with two strikes, but fired four consecutive fastballs outside the zone.

The stadium's radar gun registered Ventura's next fastball at 92 mph. Matt Carpenter smashed an RBI single off Hosmer's glove.

Down two, the Royals rallied for the second evening in a row. This time, the middle portion of their bullpen did not disappoint. For that, they can thank Bueno.