KANSAS CITY, MO. – The Royals have made a specialty of victimizing the Twins with spectacular defense in Kauffman Stadium so many times, and Alex Gordon in particular has made a career of diving and sliding and leaping for tough outs. So when Jason Castro skied a popup about 150 feet down the left field line Thursday, into one of the western Missouri counties that Gordon normally covers by himself, manager Paul Molitor mentally chalked up the ninth inning’s second out.
He had to erase it, though, when something happened he hadn’t contemplated: Gordon slowed up as he neared where the ball was falling, didn’t call Alcides Escobar off an impossible play, and then watched the Royals shortstop attempt a lunging, back-to-the-infield basket catch. It glanced off Escobar’s glove, bounced off the turf, and handed the Twins the break they needed to construct a stunning three-run rally and claim a confidence-building 4-2 victory over the Royals.
The Twins moved one full game in front of the Angels for the final AL wild card, two ahead of the Orioles and 3½ in front of the Royals.
“We’ve seen Gordon make, I don’t know how many dozens of [great] catches against us,” Molitor said, confessing his faith in the Gold Glove left fielder. “Usually off Joe Mauer, though, so maybe it was the different hitter.”
With what should have been the inning’s second out transformed into a single, Brian Dozier connected on a fly ball that might have ended the game but instead went down as a clutch tying sacrifice fly. Moments later, Jorge Polanco grounded a two-run single up the middle, and the Twins erupted in a celebration that felt like an exorcism.
“It was really good to see us get over the hump in one of these games where we’ve put pressure on down to the last pitch and just have come up a little bit short,” Molitor said. “In the last week alone, there were three other times when we were up there with a chance to do something [with] two outs in the ninth, and couldn’t get that last hit.”
That it was provided by Polanco, the 24-year-old shortstop who was hitting .217 exactly one month ago, said a lot to the Twins. He has completely turned around his season over the past four weeks, a talent that belies his inexperience. And his ninth-inning at-bat Thursday — take a 97-mph strike from Royals closer Kelvin Herrera, then connect with the next one — impressed his teammates.
“He hasn’t given up. A lot of times, when young guys go into slumps, they can let it really affect them,” said Kyle Gibson, who gave up two runs over seven innings in his fourth consecutive quality start. “We know the kind of player he is. You’ve just got to give a guy like that at-bats. That’s what Mollie’s done and it’s paid off. For [Polanco] to stay in his approach, not let it get to him, shows a lot of maturity.”
That means something coming from a pitcher whose own dog-days revival on the mound resembles Polanco’s at the plate. Gibson has been sent to the minors twice this season and appeared headed for nontender termination this winter. But in each of his past four starts, Gibson has gone at least six innings and given up two runs or fewer. His ERA since Aug. 22: 1.69.
He didn’t strike out a batter Thursday, the first time that has happened in a couple of seasons. But of the eight hits off him, none left the ballpark, and seven were singles — hits that were easily erased by double plays. And his defense turned three behind him, and a fourth for winning pitcher Trevor Hildenberger, too.
“It’s part of his game, he can get the ball on the ground,” Molitor said. “We had to make some tough plays.”
None bigger than the one the Royals couldn’t make, though.