By Betsy Helfand and Jeffrey Flanagan
MLB.com |@FlannyMLB |
MINNEAPOLIS -- With a 6-1 victory over the Twins on Sunday, the Royals officially clinched the American League's best record, giving them home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The Royals are now off until Thursday, when they will open the best-of-five American League Division Series at home against the winner of the AL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser. The Wild Card Game will be played between the Astros and Yankees at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday.
Johnny Cueto gave up just one run over five innings and fellow starter Edinson Volquez tossed two scoreless frames in relief. Meanwhile, the Royals knocked around Twins starter Ricky Nolasco, stringing together three straight hits in the second to jump out to a three-run lead and ending his day with Salvador Perez's two-run home run in the third.
"I feel great about where we're at," said Royals manager Ned Yost. "Our starting pitching has been excellent. Our defense has been great. We're swinging the bats well. We're a little dinged up, but [we've] got three days to heal now.
"We're all ready. We were ready to get the regular season over with and get on to the next season, the playoffs."
After being officially eliminated from postseason contention on Saturday, the Twins sat most of their regulars, putting together a lineup full of youngsters. Right fielder Max Kepler picked up his first career hit in the third inning. Four innings later, Royals pinch-hitter Francisco Pena, the son of Yankees first-base coach Tony Pena, also collected his first career hit.
"It was a kind of a light mood today, especially considering what transpired here on Friday and Saturday," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "There was no need to put people out there that were part of the day-to-day grind the last month. We got a chance to put a lot of youngsters out there and give them some at-bats. I'm sure it was fun for some guys to go out there and play a position when they hadn't been out there most of the month of September."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Big Sal Bomb: Perez smoked a two-run homer in the third inning, scoring Kendrys Morales and giving the Royals a 5-0 lead. The blast was Perez's 21st homer this season, which pulled him within one of the team lead -- Mike Moustakas and Morales finished tied with 22 each. Perez, though, technically set a Royals record for homers by a catcher. Miguel Olivo hit 23 homers in 2009, but four of those came as a designated hitter, with the other 19 as a catcher.
Nolasco returns: After missing a majority of the season, Nolasco worked his way back from ankle surgery and tossed two innings in the Twins' 10-2 loss to Cleveland on Wednesday. Sunday marked his first start since May 31. Nolasco touched 90 mph on the radar gun just a couple times and was tagged for five runs in his 2 2/3-innings outing. His day ended after Perez's home run.
"We got a chance to get Ricky a start here," Molitor said. "It was kind of a reward for all the hard work he put in since the surgery early in the year."
Rios' double: Alex Rios has been struggling on this trip, going just 1-for-17 entering Sunday's game. But Rios slapped a two-run double down the right-field line in the second inning, giving the Royals a 3-0 lead.
Kepler picks up first career hit: Kepler, the Southern League's Most Valuable Player, made his first Major League start on Sunday and went 1-for-5, collecting his first career hit with two outs in the second. The outfielder was a September callup, after hitting .322 with nine home runs and 71 RBIs at Double-A Chattanooga this season.
"This whole time, I've been kind of suffocating. It's tough to breathe when you're trying to get that first hit in," Kepler said. "Once I got that first hit in, I could breathe again." More >
"I didn't want to get an at-bat and then walk off the field for a standing ovation. That's selfish." -- Twins veteran Torii Hunter, on deciding to sit out the final game rather than get a final ovation from the crowd in what could've been his last game after 19 seasons in the Majors
"It means a lot, because we're built for our park -- and our fans make it tough for opposing teams." -- Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, on securing home-field advantage in the AL
"He's right where we want him to be." -- Yost, on Yordano Ventura, one of his options to start Game 1 of the ALDSMore >
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
With 83 wins, Molitor ranked seventh on the Twins' all-time list for a manager in his first season. Bill Rigney holds the franchise mark with 98 wins in 1970.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
With Kepler on first, designated hitter Miguel Sano hit a ball toward right fielder Rios, which he appeared to catch. Molitor successfully challenged the play, with video showing Rios had trapped the ball, giving the Twins runners on the corners with two outs. They did not score in the inning.
Royals: The Royals have not announced a starter for Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday. The contest will be broadcast on FOX or FS1 or MLBN, with the time to be determined.
Betsy Helfand is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Jeffrey Flanagan is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FlannyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.