By Andy McCullough
KANSAS CITY, MO. -- The chants overlapped as Nori Aoki stepped toward the plate. From both sides of Kauffman Stadium, the fans threw their voices toward the diamond, the sounds mixing but not muddling. The words were simple -- "Let's go Royals" -- but the volume blared in the eighth inning of a 6-1 victory over Minnesota.
If Wednesday lacked the sheer drama of Tuesday, when Alex Gordon blasted a walkoff homer against Twins closer Glen Perkins, the result was still the same. The script was similar, but the actors created a far more diverse cast.
Instead of one strike by Gordon, the Royals benefited from a spot start by an Australian newcomer named Liam Hendriks, a headfirst slide into first base by Mike Moustakas, a well-placed bunt by Jarrod Dyson and a succession of singles.
In the end, the ballpark rollicked with the energy of 17,668 fans.
The crowd assembled a day after manager Ned Yost commented on the paucity of fans in attendance. A day later, he offered only praise for those inside the ballpark.
"I thought it was electric," Yost said. "I did. I looked around, and everybody was standing, having a blast. I loved it."
When Aoki sent a go-ahead hit into left field, Moustakas dashed home and the noise morphed into a blend of screams and applause. The chorus continued as Billy Butler added a two-run single and Salvador Perez tacked on a two-run triple that capped the scoring in a six-run rally. More than 10 minutes after Greg Holland threw the game's final pitch, a gathering of fans still chanted for their hometown nine.
The victory coincided with an implosion by new Tigers ace David Price. As Detroit fell, the Royals pumped up their lead in the American League Central to 2 1/2 games. They did so despite seven silent innings against Minnesota's Phil Hughes. Until the eighth, Hughes exposed the team's primary flaw, its lack of patience and inability to extend at-bats.
Then, of course, came the decisive eighth inning, when the club batted around and batted aside Hughes and his bullpen mates.
"We're on a mission in here," Dyson said.
The latest to revel in the run was Hendriks, a 25-year-old pitcher working in place of Yordano Ventura. An onset of back soreness kept Ventura off the mound. Hendriks kept the Twins at bay until Oswaldo Arcia slashed an RBI double in the seventh. Otherwise, Hendriks was excellent.
"What more can you ask, from what he did?" Yost said.
"One run, four hits?" Dyson said. "You can't ask for a better job than that, man."
"The team energy just caught on with him," Gordon said.
About a month ago, the Royals executed a trade designed for this scenario. They acquired Hendriks, along with backup catcher Erik Kratz, from the Blue Jays in exchange for backup third baseman Danny Valencia. Hendriks operated as insurance against injury. The team did not want to repeat the Aaron Brooks fiasco from May, when Brooks picked up only two outs in a spot start against Toronto.
Brooks was a greenhorn making his second big-league appearance. Hendriks had pitched in parts of four seasons for the Twins and Blue Jays. The assignment would not overwhelm him. As the clubhouse emptied for batting practice Wednesday, Hendriks stayed behind, sipping coffee and gazing at an iPad.
"A lot of guys when they come up in this situation, they're a little bit starry-eyed," Yost said. "He fit right in. He'd been here a day and a half, and he feels like he's been here all year long."
Hendriks joined a team in the thick of a playoff chase, with a nonpareil defense behind him. The unit's leader showed his worth in the third inning. When Kurt Suzuki lined a curveball to left field, Alex Gordon gave chase.
Gordon leaped as he reached the wall. He collected the baseball in his glove a moment before impact.
"The defense was absolutely fantastic tonight," Hendriks said.
Gordon is no stranger to adulation here. But his homer on Tuesday also concealed the team's scarcity of scoring. Heading into Wednesday, the club had produced four runs in its last 27 innings.
Hughes had muzzled them fewer than two weeks ago. He relies on misplaced aggression from his foes. The Royals traffic in that quality. Through seven innings, Hughes required only 70 pitches. He had given up just two hits.
"You look up there, and it looks like every inning the pitch count's going down, instead of going up," Yost said. "And I'm like, 'Man. How can we get rid of this guy?' "
They devised a solution in the eighth. The rally began with 42-year-old part-timer Raul Ibanez, who dunked a single into center field. Into the game loped Lorenzo Cain. He stole second base, then took third when Moustakas reached on an infield single. Facedown in the dirt, Moustakas pounded the ground and then clapped his hands.
After a flyout by Christian Colon, Dyson came up to hit. He had struck out in his first at-bat and popped up the first pitch he saw in his second. Hughes flung a fastball over the plate. Dyson laid down a nifty bunt toward first baseman Joe Mauer. Cain read the bunt well and beat Mauer's throw home.
The crowd erupted as the score tied. After the game, a bit of confusion arose from the source of the call. Yost insinuated the dugout signaled for a safety squeeze. Dyson looked surprised to hear this.
"I bunted on my own," Dyson said. "I swear to God."
He paused. A smile spread across his face.
"Skip tell y'all it was a safety squeeze? Well, alright. That's what it was."
Cain broke the deadlock with his assessment.
"It wasn't a signal," Cain said. "It was all on Rod. He decided to do it.When he's up, I'm always looking for him to bunt right there. It was just me reading him."
His read was true. The run set the stage for Aoki. He snapped a zero-for-17 streak with an infield single in the first inning. Three at-bats later, he stepped into a cauldron of noise, a crowd that would soon pop when his hit put the team ahead for good.
"As a player, you want to play in front of loud, loud fans like that," Aoki said through his interpreter, Kosuke Inaji. "It's just really fun."