Royals rally in 8th, find late relief against Braves

ATLANTA — When in close games in the late innings this season, the Royals have rarely won a battle of bullpens. Coming into Tuesday night’s series opener against the Braves, Kansas City had won just one of its seven games when tied entering the seventh inning.

But thanks to some timely hitting from veterans Lucas Duda and Alex Gordon, the Royals prevailed, 5-4, at SunTrust Park.

While the Royals have struggled in close games, they have been on a hot streak lately. After starting the season 5-23 in games when they’re within a run when entering the seventh inning, they have won each of their past three such contests. Here are three key takeaways from Kansas City’s first win in Atlanta since 2013.

Coming through in the clutch

A longtime nemesis since his days with the Astros, Braves starter Dallas Keuchel stymied the Royals for most of the night — holding Kansas City to three hits over six dominant innings. But the Royals made each hit count.

Whit Merrifield was the first to reach base against the southpaw — his leadoff bunt single in the fourth drew boos from the crowd — and Gordon knocked him in two pitches later on a double down the first-base line. Gordon added a second RBI two frames later when he launched a go-ahead home run over the Chop House in right field — his first homer in 47 days.

“We really didn’t get a lot of hits off him, but we were able to get good at-bats and get some walks, and run the bases well,” Gordon said. “Little things like that can help out against a guy like Keuchel. Laying down a bunt, maybe messing up his momentum a little, can get things going. It was not the best day offensively, but it was what we needed.”

After the Braves tied it at 2 in the seventh on Freddie Freeman’s single, Duda’s pinch-hit blast fueled a three-run eighth as the Royals added insurance runs on a bases-loaded walk and a hit-by-pitch. The rally proved crucial as the bullpen yielded runs in the eighth and ninth innings, and the Royals did it with just two hits in the eighth.

“To strike for a three-spot in the eighth inning, we had some patient at-bats,” manager Ned Yost said. “We did a good job of taking pitches and taking walks when we needed to. Arte [Humberto Arteaga] got hit with a pitch, which was a big RBI, and it was probably the winning RBI.”

Duffy back at his best

Kansas City was in this one late because starter Danny Duffy was able to outduel Keuchel early. Duffy struck out a season-high 11 over six one-run innings by mixing a high four-seam fastball with offspeed pitches on the margins.

Duffy felt as though his secondary pitches were catching too much of the plate early on, but he was able to adjust and go toe to toe with the former American League Cy Young Award winner.

“Any time you see Dallas Keuchel on the other end, you know you’re going to be up against it,” Duffy said. “I have confidence in our guys no matter what, I don’t care who’s out there, but Keuchel’s obviously a competitor. He has good stuff and knows how to command the ball. Any time you face a guy like that, you know you have to be precise as you can. You know you have to make pitches because you’re not going to have a whole lot of leeway.”

Duffy allowed a baserunner in each of his first five frames, but he was able to mitigate the damage since each of the three extra-base hits he allowed came in separate innings. Striking out 11 of the 26 batters he faced also made it hard for the Braves to advance those runners against him, especially since he only issued one walk.

Bullpen does just enough to hold on

The Royals’ bullpen has been the main culprit for the club’s late-game struggles this season. The unit’s 4.81 ERA ranked 11th in the AL entering Tuesday, and that only went up with a run allowed in each frame — but it was still enough to claim the win.

Tim Hill yielded the tying single to Freeman — the run was charged to Scott Barlow — and Jake Diekman allowed a run in the eighth when shortstop Arteaga couldn’t handle a grounder up the middle that went for a hit. Finally, closer Ian Kennedy gave up three consecutive singles to start the ninth to put the potential tying and go-ahead runs on base, but he struck out Austin Riley to earn his 18th save.

“They have such a good lineup that you have to execute really, really well,” Kennedy said. “They don’t really have a break all the way through their lineup.”