KANSAS CITY — The message trickling through the Royals’ dugout in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday afternoon was simple.
“All we need is a bloop and a blast.”
The “bloop” was provided by Whit Merrifield, who found a way to get on base with an infield single that Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario bobbled.
The blast was provided by Carlos Santana, who hammered a line drive over the right-center-field wall for a two-run home run in the Royals’ 3-2 walk-off win and series victory at Kauffman Stadium.
“I’m not going to say I called the shot, because I don’t know if I called it out loud,” said reliever Kyle Zimmer, who earned the win with two scoreless innings to keep the Royals’ rally in sight. “I had a feeling after Whit got on base. We were just saying all we need is a bloop and a blast. Not going to say Whit’s was a bloop, but he found a way to get on. And then we got the blast.”
When Merrifield got on base against Tigers reliever Michael Fulmer, Santana had one thought.
“I want to win the game,” he said.
Santana took an outside slider on the first pitch he saw. The next was a 97 mph fastball down in the zone that he lifted 442 feet over the wall with an exit velocity of 105.6 mph.
“Carlos is just a special player,” said manager Mike Matheny, who watched the ending from his office after he was ejected in the sixth inning. “Just like we’ve talked about and celebrated Salvy so much, Carlos is one of those guys, too. You want to see them in those situations because they rise to those occasions.”
Before the ninth, the Royals didn’t have many offensive opportunities. They were stifled by Tigers starter Casey Mize, who had allowed one hit — on a weak ground ball that could have been ruled an error — through six innings. Andrew Benintendi and Salvador Perez got the first two clean hits of the game in the seventh, and Kelvin Gutierrez hit a fielder’s choice to put runners on the corners with one out, knocking Mize from the game. Hanser Alberto’s pinch-hit sacrifice fly gave Kansas City its first run, but Gutierrez was thrown out at third base, with the call standing after a replay review.
Still, the Royals stayed in it. Starter Kris Bubic battled through five innings after a 25-pitch, two-run first inning, and Kansas City’s bullpen allowed one hit in the next four innings to shut the Tigers down. In the top of the seventh, shortstop Nicky Lopez saved a run by throwing out Jonathan Schoop at home.
Meanwhile, the Royals’ offense was stirring.
“Mize was good today. … You can tell the guys are having trouble picking up the spin and kept us off-balance all day,” Matheny said. “But I love that message that we have: Just keep going. I’m hearing the guys say it, it’s not just us coaches yelling like idiots all the time.
“The guys are buying into this: Keep us there, keep us there, something good is going to happen.”
The Royals’ biggest free-agent acquisition this offseason got the big hit. Santana is lauded for his patient approach at the plate — his career .367 on-base percentage was a main reason Kansas City signed him this winter — but the first baseman is not afraid to change his approach and start slugging.
“He’s brought everything to this team,” Matheny said. “When you see [his approach] lived out through a hitter like Carlos that brings both the patience to take the base but will also do damage and knows when to go hunt in both [situations], it’s very rare. It’s helped the development of every hitter in that clubhouse.”
One swing gave the Royals the series victory and a 4-1 homestand this week. All five games this week were determined by two or fewer runs. Kansas City has won six of its last nine after an 11-game losing streak, and Sunday’s win brought the club to 7-5 in one-run games this season.
Those close wins are important, especially for a Royals team looking to take the next step toward contending again. And as the offense works through the struggles that had it at just three hits before the ninth inning Sunday, a staple of the lineup is going to be finding ways to scrape runs across when it can.
“I don’t think it’s good for my heart or most people watching these, but we’re going to have a lot of these,” Matheny said. “This is just a scratch-and-claw kind of club. That’s not a bad thing. Do whatever we need to do.”
Bloops and blasts alike.