Josh Willingham on Friday played in the 1,127th game of this major league career. Very few have been meaningful this late in the season, and none have come in the playoffs.
That could be changing for the 35-year-old slugger. When Ron Gardenhire interrupted Willingham’s pregame stretching on Monday to tell him he had been traded to Kansas City, Willingham shot up three spots in the AL Central standings to the hottest club in baseball.
“I just want to help them any way possible,” said Willingham, sitting in the visitors dugout at Target Field before Friday’s game wearing a blue No. 7 Royals jersey.
No kidding. Willingham stole second base Wednesday, going on lefthander Scott Kazmir’s first move, during a 3-0 victory against Oakland.
“The last time he did that with us he blew his knee out,” Gardenhire said. “We kind of shut that stuff down.”
Kansas City has stormed past the sputtering Detroit Tigers and into first place in the AL Central. The Royals entered Friday 18-4 since July 22. With a rotation led by James Shields, a bullpen full of hard throwers and a solid defense, Kansas City has made itself a real threat to stop Detroit’s three-year run as division champions.
“They have a great pitching staff and one of the best bullpens in baseball, which always helps,” Gardenhire said. “They are one of the more athletic teams, if not the most athletic team, in baseball.”
Offense has been an issue at times, and the Royals’ 72 home runs are the fewest in the majors. First baseman Eric Hosmer is on the disabled list with a fractured right hand. Billy Butler, normally the designated hitter, has moved to first, which has opened up at-bats for Willingham at DH.
Willingham received a loud ovation from the crowd Friday night as starting lineups were announced — then struck out against Ricky Nolasco in his first at-bat with runners on first and second. But he hit a three-run double off Nolasco to spark a five-run Royals fourth.
He hasn’t experienced playoff baseball in his career but the Royals might give him that opportunity.
“It would mean a lot,” Willingham said. “Obviously when you play in games that mean something in late August and September, I’ve never experienced that before. Hopefully I’ll get to experience that this year and help our ballclub get into October.”
Class AA New Britain outfielder Byron Buxton will head to Fort Myers, Fla., on Sunday to continue his recovery from a concussion suffered Wednesday, when he collided with a teammate and was knocked unconscious.
Buxton, the Twins’ top prospect, has a home in Fort Myers and can be checked on by the medical staff on hand at the team’s year-round complex.
“Just going to let him go down there and recover,” Twins official Jack Goin said. “We’re not going to push him. There’s really no timetable. As you guys have seen with concussions, you can’t put a time frame on them. So as he gets healthy and is able to do things, we’ll let him do things.”
Goin could not provide details on what symptoms Buxton was dealing with.
Buxton, playing center field, was chasing after a sinking fly ball Wednesday when he collided with right fielder Mike Kvasnicka. Buxton was knocked out for about 10 minutes. Kvasnicka suffered injuries to his hip and abdomen but should recover.
Pino sent down
The Twins sent righthander Yohan Pino to Class AAA Rochester to make room for Nolasco to return from the DL.