KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In the 6.3 seconds between the time he released the ball and the umpire at home plate punched his fist to signal an out, Lorenzo Cain leaned against the center-field fence, lips pursed, silently cursing himself. It was the ninth inning of a late-July game between the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates that felt like it wouldn't at all be out of place in late October, and what unfolded in front of him existed only because of the rarest kind of play: a Lorenzo Cain misread.
Cain in center field is baseball sonar, tracking every ball hit with precision and speed, and he had malfunctioned in the worst moment. Even after letting Jung Ho Kang's fly ball soar over his head, Cain managed to embody these Royals in six seconds of delirium. The perfect throw to shortstop Alcides Escobar. And his perfect relay to catcher Salvador Perez. And his perfect tag on Starling Marte for the first out of the inning.
And, finally, the smile.
The best smile in baseball belongs to Cain, and it's not particularly close. It's mischievous and devious and innocent and easy, and when Gerry Davis called Marte out on an ill-advised send by Pirates third-base coach Rick Sofield, it crested in full force, the moment only accentuating its brightness. While the ninth inning got hairy and Greg Holland needed to escape another jam of his own making, the Royals escaped with a 3-1 victory, the sort that puts hair on a team's chest. It went scoreless for seven innings, with Pirates ace Gerrit Cole facing the war chest of Kansas City's bullpen, and it felt like it zeroes might adorn the scoreboard late into the night.
"This thing," Royals manager Ned Yost remembered thinking, "can go a while before either team scores."
The whole thing resembled what just a few years ago existed only in Bud Selig's fever dreams: mid-summer, with 38,163 packing a sold-out Kauffman Stadium, where the kings of the American League, the Royals, took on the third-best team in baseball, the Pirates, both angling to buy players at the trade deadline for what look like inevitable postseason runs. The AL's worst team over the previous two decades against the NL's worst team over the previous two decades now both small-market success stories playing a delicious brand of baseball.
In such games, little things win and lose them, and Pittsburgh tripped over itself Tuesday night. Neil Walker let a routine groundball through his legs. Andrew McCutchen made an ill-advised throw on the Alex Rios single that followed, allowing Rios to move to second base. Gregory Polanco bobbled Jarrod Dyson's broken-bat single that plated two runs, and Dyson cruised to second base. And he scored after a stolen base and an Escobar single.
That's all it took to push Kansas City to 20 games over .500, a marvel considering the state of its pitching rotation. Starter Jason Vargas, coming off the disabled list for the second time this season, may find himself back a third time after exiting with elbow pain. His return precipitated the demotion of Yordano Ventura, the Royals' opening day starter and recipient of a $23 million extension this offseason, to Triple-A. The Royals have enlisted six other starters this season, and their current rotation includes Edinson Volquez, Danny Duffy, Chris Young and Jeremy Guthrie, not necessarily the sort one would expect spearheads the AL's best team by 3½ games.
Getting nearly four innings out of Joe Blanton let Yost use Ryan Madson (1.86 ERA) and Kelvin Herrera (1.99 ERA) to get to Wade Davis, whose appearance against McCutchen with two on and two outs in a scoreless game in the top of the eighth conjured memories of the Royals' World Series run last October. Atmosphere supercharged, stakes amplified, Davis fed McCutchen a diet of high-90s fastballs before finishing him with a feeble swing on a 93-mph cutter on the inside corner that left McCutchen mouthing the words of every hitter who faces Davis: "Dirty."
The ninth looked troublesome, particularly after Cain thought Holland jammed Kang and realized as soon as Dyson yelled "Back! Back!" from left field that he was in trouble.
"It's like he was stuck in the mud," Dyson said.
"That's what I said in my mind, too," Cain said.
Instead of lamenting his bad jump, he picked the ball clean after it hopped off the fence and whirled around, the momentum sending him back to the fence, where he could see the magic happening.
"It's a very difficult play because you're catching a ball and you're whipping all in one motion and throwing it," Yost said. "To be accurate there is tough. And then Esky catching the ball and whipping it to Sal with the exact same amount of accuracy is tough. It shows you the proficiency of our defense and how good our defense is in all phases."
Last October made this place greedy, and the Royals answered with their best 92-game stretch since 1985. The baseball renaissance here is alive, with one in every eight people in the metro area watching games and Tuesday-night sellouts and GIFs of their easy-to-love center fielder springing up. Cain is the new face of this team, literal and figurative, his bat this season catching up to his fielding and putting him in downballot MVP consideration.
Between their gloves and their bullpen, the Royals have proven in consecutive seasons that it is possible to win and win a lot by mastering what until recent years were considered fringe elements of the game. Bullpens are unstable and unsexy. Defense is for the nerds. The Royals embraced both, and here they are, their formula unshakable, their record undeniable, their smiles unmistakable.
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