KANSAS CITY — When Kyle Isbel took the first 100 mph cutter he saw from Cleveland closer Emmanuel Clase for ball one in the ninth inning, a chant began to trickle through the crowd at Kauffman Stadium.
“Three more balls,” fans scattered along the first- and third-base sides yelled.
Isbel took another ball. The chants got louder.
“Two more balls,” the crowd yelled.
The Royals’ dugout took notice, and whether the small but mighty crowd late on a Wednesday night had any effect on one of the best closers in baseball, well, who’s to say? But what happened next in the Royals’ 2-1 walk-off win over the Guardians was remarkable nonetheless.
Clase, who entered Wednesday night with just seven walks for the entire season, walked Isbel on five pitches. And then he walked Drew Waters on four pitches, with the chants for “four more balls” coming as soon as he stepped to the plate.
“Heard that sort of thing in college,” said Nicky Lopez, who moved Isbel to third with a fielder’s choice bunt. “But never up here. It was awesome. We loved it.”
Isbel and Waters were two of the Royals’ seven rookies in the lineup. Laying off Clase’s cutter was impressive, even as the All-Star struggled to find the plate.
“It’s easy to get overaggressive and go into swing mode,” manager Mike Matheny said. “I don’t think many people have seen a 100 mph cutter. It’s a very unique pitch. Once you get behind in the count, it gets tougher.
“Pass it on to the next guy. That was a great job against a very difficult closer.”
The guy they passed it on to was another rookie in MJ Melendez. The Royals hadn’t had a runner on third before this situation, and they were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position entering the ninth. With starter Zack Greinke’s quality start in his return from the injured list and the bullpen’s scoreless performance, the Royals only needed one run to tie it.
In the moment that mattered most, they came through.
When Melendez got a pitch in the middle of the plate, he ripped a game-tying single.
“When I was on deck, I went over to talk to Salvy [Salvador Perez] and [bench coach] Pedro [Grifol],” Melendez said. “‘What do you guys think, should I take the first pitch? He’s been a little wild. Or should I go up there ready to swing?’ They’re like, ‘Go up there ready to swing.’ For them to have that confidence in me definitely helped me have the confidence going into that.”
Perez and Grifol urged Melendez: Don’t let a strike get past you.
“Maybe it’s the only pitch you see down the middle,” Perez said. “After that, it’s a cutter at 102 and a slider at 95. You have to be aggressive, try to swing at strikes. And he did it. Pretty good. He listened to me.”
With runners on the corners and one out, the Guardians had a decision to make: Face Bobby Witt Jr., the speedy 22-year-old with 20 home runs this season, or face Perez, the seven-time All-Star also with 20 homers?
The intentional walk to Witt didn’t work out, with Perez lining a ball just deep enough to center field to score Lopez.
“I really didn’t know what to think of it,” Witt said. “I just knew that whenever Sal’s coming to the plate, we’re going to go home a winner.”
Clase’s cutter-slider combination is lethal, and if hitters do make contact, it’s usually on the ground. The Guardians were hoping Perez would ground into a double play. Witt, the second-fastest player in MLB according to Statcast tracking, is more likely to beat that out.
But it also loads the bases for the Royals’ most dangerous hitter in Perez. And all he had to do was hit a pitch just deep enough to score Lopez from third, which is exactly what he did on a slider on the outside part of the zone.
“I just tried to do my job,” Perez said. “I didn’t need to worry about [the intentional walk]. I don’t want to lose my focus. I want to be [focused]. If I get angry or more excited, maybe I hit a ground ball. But I was patient, tried to make a good swing.”
In less than 15 minutes, the Royals flipped the script of the series finale. A few chants, a few balls and the right hitters up at the right time were all it took to avoid a sweep by the American League Central-leading Guardians and hand Clase his first blown save since May.
“Salvy’s born for this,” Matheny said. “Born for those situations. It’s exactly what we would expect him to do.”