By Jeffrey Flanagan and Rhett Bollinger
KANSAS CITY -- After having issues with runners in scoring position, the Twins came through in a big way in the ninth, shocking the Royals with three runs against closer Kelvin Herrera for a 4-2 win on Thursday night in the opener of a critical four-game set at Kauffman Stadium.
Minnesota improved its lead to one game over the Angels for the second AL Wild Card spot, while Kansas City fell 3 1/2 games behind the Twins.
"It was really good to see us get over the hump in one of these games where we put pressure down to the last pitch," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "We've come up short, even in the last week alone, we've had three times where we've had a chance in the ninth to do something, but couldn't get the big hit. The guys had some really good at-bats to get it done."
The three-run rally was sparked by a defensive misplay by the Royals with one out, as Jason Castro lifted a high fly ball to shallow left field that dropped in for a hit off shortstop Alcides Escobar's glove as left fielder Alex Gordon converged. The Twins capitalized after a walk from Robbie Grossman loaded the bases with one out, as Brian Dozier tied it with a sacrifice fly before Jorge Polanco's go-ahead two-run single. It was Herrera's first appearance since leaving Friday's game with right forearm tightness.
"I was playing no-doubles and Esky had a long way," Gordon said. "It was going to be a tough play. I saw Esky go for it and I thought Esky was going to have it -- typical Esky play. I kind of got turned around. It was probably a ball I should have took.
"This was a tough one to lose. It definitely hurts, having the game, the lead in the ninth, and to give it back. But we can't let this linger."
It spoiled a solid Royals debut by right-hander Sam Gaviglio, who went five frames, surrendering one run on four hits and three walks. The lone run came on a solo shot from Grossman in the fifth, as Gaviglio worked his way out of several jams.
Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson was saddled with a no-decision, but he pitched well, allowing two runs on eight hits and a walk over seven strong innings. The Royals scored their runs against him in the fifth with Gordon lacing a one-out RBI single to tie the game and Whit Merrifield smacking a two-out RBI single into right to score Gordon on a close play at the plate.
"Any time you go seven innings and you don't strike a guy out, it means your defense played pretty good," Gibson said. "They helped me out with several double plays and I was able to execute some big pitches in big spots."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Pop fly proves pivotal: Castro's popup in the ninth left the bat at 83.1 mph with a launch angle of 61 degrees, giving it a hit percentage of just one percent, according to Statcast™. So the Twins were fortunate to see it hit off Escobar as he tried to make the catch near the left-field line. Gordon had a catch probability of 91 percent on the play, as he had to cover 105 feet to make the play, while Escobar had to run 119 feet going backward. More >
"We've seen Gordon make how many dozens of catches against us, but Escobar was looking at Gordon and vice-versa, and they tried to close on it," Molitor said. "I couldn't tell how close it was to being fair or foul."
Polanco comes up huge: With the bases loaded and two out in the ninth, Polanco came to the plate with the score tied and took the first pitch for a strike on the outside corner. But when Herrera came back with the same 97-mph fastball in a similar location, Polanco didn't miss it, stroking it back up the middle for a two-run lead. Matt Belisle worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his sixth save. More >
"When I went to the plate, the first thing I was thinking was he had to throw me a strike," Polanco said. "So I just waited for my pitch and he threw it in the zone, and I hit it."
"It's no more devastating this time of year when you have a chance to win and gain a game. It's a big game. We had everything lined up. We just didn't win it." -- Royals manager Ned Yost
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Entering the game, the Royals were 58-1 when leading after eight innings, while the Twins were 2-59 when trailing after eight frames.
WHAT'S NEXT Twins: Right-hander Ervin Santana (14-7, 3.35 ERA) is set to start for the Twins on Friday in this crucial series against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Santana was saddled with a no-decision against Kansas City his last time out, allowing four runs over 6 2/3 innings..
Royals: Right-hander Ian Kennedy (4-10, 5.37) tries to snap a 17-game home winless streak as he starts against the Twins on Friday at 7:15 p.m CT. Kennedy gave up two earned runs over 5 2/3 innings in the Royals' 5-4 win over the Twins on Sunday.