By Andy McCullough
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The bat helicoptered over the visitors' dugout and crashed into the fans seated a few rows back from the action. The pitch that ejected the lumber of Texas Rangers catcher Tomas Telis was a 79-mph change-up down the heart of the plate. The culprit who caused the flying wood was Jason Vargas, who exhibited a pinpoint level of control in completing a sweep with a 4-1 victory on Wednesday.
Vargas baffled the Rangers for 6.2 scoreless innings. He struck out five and walked none. He scattered six hits -- only two occurred in the same inning. That was the seventh. After a softly struck single to left by second baseman Luis Sardinas, manager Ned Yost cracked open his bullpen.
The Royals (77-61) required their finest pitching to finish this homestand with a flourish. They won five times, lost four and suspended one game with Cleveland. The Indians trounced the Detroit Tigers 7-0 earlier Wednesday night at Progressive Field, so the Royals extended their advantage in the American League Central to a game and a half.
Kansas City has a date set with Detroit next week at Comerica Park. But first, they must play three games at Yankee Stadium over the week. The tension should only heighten as September continues.
To close out the week, the offense held yet another exhibition in minimalism. Alex Gordon belted his fourth homer of this 10-game stint at home. Salvador Perez and Billy Butler traded doubles in the seventh to add some breathing room.
A fresh face tacked on another run. Terrance Gore, the 23-year-old pinch-running dynamo, replaced Butler at second base. He jetted to third with two outs, then sprinted home after a wayward throw by Telis. Gore captured his first career stolen base and run all in one sequence.
In the wee hours of the morning on July 9, Vargas (11-7, 3.14 ERA) felt excruciating pain in his stomach. He was later rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy. The operation cost him a month of action. When he landed on the operating table, his ERA was 3.31, and he had exceeded the expectations of Yost.
In his seven starts since returning, Vargas has outperformed that already impressive pace. He has posted a 2.66 ERA across those 44 innings.
In the afternoon, Yost found himself in a familiar position: Debating the merits of playing designated hitter Billy Butler. The Royals spent more than $1.8 million when they acquired Josh Willingham from Minnesota. After missing a few days off with a sore intercostal muscle, Willingham retained a spot on the bench. Yost is committed to using Butler.
Butler hit .185 in the first eight games of this stay at Kauffman Stadium. He stumbled through three unproductive at-bats the day before. Yost admitted he may need to yank at-bats from Butler if his performance continued to wane.
"Billy's got the ability to get hot and carry us for a while," Yost said. "He can do some things offensively. So we really, really need him. But we're running out of time. We've got to score some runs."
That process has become painful. The Royals managed only one hit, a two-out double by Alcides Escobar, in the first three innings against Blue Springs High graduate Nick Tepesch.
The fourth frame proved more fruitful. Omar Infante opened with a single. Up came Gordon. Tepesch tested Gordon with a series of fastballs away. Down in the count, 3-1, he was forced to throw a strike. Gordon crushed the 90-mph fastball and lifted the pitch over the center-field wall. The estimated distance was 409 feet.
The long ball afforded Vargas two runs of cushion. He had looked cool under duress all evening. He gave up a one-out double in the third and a leadoff double in the fourth. Both times, the runner could not advance past second.
The sixth inning was more of a challenge. Elvis Andrus stung a thigh-high curveball over Gordon's head to start the inning. In order to escape, Vargas would have to get past Alex Rios and Adrian Beltre, the two best hitters in this decimated Rangers lineup, right-handers who could do damage against the southpaw.
Vargas spotted changes and fastballs away to Rios. The fourth pitch was a changeup that Rios popped to shallow center field. Vargas repeated this tack against Beltre. After Beltre fouled back an 88-mph fastball, Vargas fooled him with a changeup well off the plate. He racked up his fourth strikeout of the night.
For Vargas, the biggest challenge after the double turned out to be unheralded rookie Ryan Rua. Exposed on defense the night before, Rua attempted to redeem himself in this spot. He was unsuccessful, but he did wage a 10-pitch skirmish with Vargas. At last he flied out to center field. Lorenzo Cain snagged the ball on the run.