KANSAS CITY -- Ordinarily, splitting a four-game series at home would not be cause for rejoicing. But this was not an ordinary case.
When the Kansas City Royals defeated the Minnesota Twins, 3-2, Sunday, they earned a split of this four-game series. And "earned" is the key word. The Twins threw everything they had at the Royals, hoping to draw 2 1/2 games back in the American League Central.
The Twins pitched well enough to sweep the series, had they been playing a lesser opponent. The Royals, who have not completely escaped a week-long offensive slump, scored just nine runs in the four games. All things considered, the split was a significant achievement.
"It's as big a game as you're going to play in early July," Royals manager Ned Yost said of Sunday's contest. "Very seldom do you get the opportunity to make it a two-game swing. And with this game we go back to 4 1/2 [games ahead] instead of 2 1/2. It was a huge game, and we played it like that in our mind."
The Twins are a better team than they were before they arrived in Kansas City. They brought up power-hitting prospect Miguel Sano from Double-A, and he responded by hitting .400 (6-for-15) in the series.
They also got Ervin Santana back in their rotation. Santana had been suspended for the first 80 games of the season for use of a performance-enhancing substance. Santana, who had been slotted as Minnesota's No. 2 starter before the suspension, did not disappoint Sunday, throwing eight strong innings, giving up two runs on just three hits. It was a start similar to the performance of Kyle Gibson, who pitched eight shutout innings for the Twins in the opener of this series.
The more you looked at the way the Twins pitched in this series, the better a split looked for the Royals.
"It just shows you that we can find ways to win against tough pitching," Yost said. "Today was a great example of it. You're not going to see a much better game pitched than Ervin Santana pitched today. It's impressive that, when we face really good pitching, we can find ways to win."
The winning formula Sunday was a strong start from Danny Duffy, followed by the usual spotless work from three relievers. The hitting wasn't frequent, but it was timely. Backup catcher Drew Butera drove in a run with a two-out single. First baseman Eric Hosmer delivered a game-winning double for a walk-off win in the ninth. Left fielder Alex Gordon hit a solo home run in the fifth and also made two sensational diving catches to save runs.
"I don't have blazing speed like [Lorenzo] Cain or [Jarrod] Dyson, so that's what happens," Gordon said with a smile. "I have to make a diving catch."
Gordon's skillset was at the forefront of this victory. But he almost wasn't on the field. Yost thought each of his outfielders needed a day off. He was leaning toward sitting Gordon, but he rested Alex Rios instead.
"It just shows you how smart as a manager I am," Yost said, drawing the expected laughs from his audience of reporters. "Last night I barely slept trying to figure out who to give a day off to. My initial thought was that I was going to give Gordie the day off. I'm lying there thinking 'Gordie had a couple of really good at-bats last night. And then there's his defense. Maybe we'll just have to find another day to give Gordie a day off. Especially with how tough Santana is against right-handers.' About 4 o'clock in the morning I decided to play Gordie. It worked out real nice."
The Royals are not out of the woods offensively. They have scored just 15 runs over the last seven games.
"[Minnesota] is a good team, and they're playing well," Gordon said. "It was good to come out with two games here. I can probably speak for everyone; I feel we're not playing our best baseball right now. To get a split like this, it was satisfying for us. Hopefully, we can pick it up and start playing a little better."
Even operating at less than peak efficiency, against an improved and highly motivated opponent, the Royals were able to keep their closest pursuers from gaining ground. This split at home was its own sort of victory.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.