Homers by Buck, Aviles lift Royals
Soria's blown save forces extra innings, but KC prevails
ST. PETERSBURG -- With a series sweep and the excruciating flight that follows a loss hovering dangerously over the Royals' heads, John Buck just wanted to repay a favor.
Closer Joakim Soria had just surrendered the tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning to suffer just his second blown save this season.
"It seems like if we're giving him the lead he's just kind of carried us, and a lot of our wins are credit to him," Buck said of Soria, the recently named Royals All-Star.
So it was only fitting on the day of his 28th birthday, that the selfless Buck would be the one delivering presents, blasting a three-run homer in the top of the 10th inning to gift wrap Soria's win and erase the closer's previous woes.
Buck's three-run shot was followed by a solo homer from the formerly slumping Mike Aviles, to cushion a 7-4 win over the Rays on Monday afternoon, in front of 16, 293 at Tropicana Field.
"To be able to kind of return the favor, even if it's just once, it feels good," Buck said. "To be able to pick a teammate [Soria] up like that who's been doing so well for us. We all know he's good."
Soria entered the game with 23 saves in 24 opportunities, but the All-Star found out firsthand how hard it is to beat the best team in baseball, particularly in the Rays' own ballpark.
Just two outs from a win in the ninth inning, Soria let a 1-2 pitch get in Carlos Pena's wheelhouse, as the Rays' first baseman blasted a one-out, solo homer in the bottom of the ninth to send the game into extra innings.
But just when it looked like the Rays were poised to reclaim the momentum they have been sole proprietors of at home, the Royals caught the elusive break, as Buck's ball hit the left-field foul pole for the obligatory trip around the bases.
"I didn't think it was foul, I knew it would be in," Buck said of his initial reaction. "But then it kept hooking, so I was watching it and I was like, 'Don't you dare.' I saw it try to sneak over there, but luckily it stayed fair."
Yes, the same luck that had taunted the Royals in all three previous losses to the Rays showed up en masse on Monday afternoon.
There was starter Gil Meche, who got out of a bases-loaded jam in the second inning, a bit of damage manager Trey Hillman believed made the right-hander throw "stronger" in the ensuing innings.
"Actually [Meche was] better in the fourth and the fifth [inning]," Hillman said, adding that he thought it was "the best he pitched."
The resounding second-inning statement was followed by a "deluxe" coaching move from third-base coach Luis Silverio to give the Royals an early lead.
Silverio made the risky move of sending Mark Teahen to score from first base on Ross Gload's single, after Carl Crawford -- getting a rare start in center field -- was late on relaying the ball to the Rays infield.
"Huge. It was a great job of him hustling to third base," Hillman said. "The way [Silverio] kept him coming and read the play ... it can't happen unless the guy's running hard from first to third base."
The Royals' fortune continued when Ron Mahay entered a then-one-run game with a pair of inherited runners and one out in the sixth inning. The lefty specialist promptly retired the side, and went on to fan four of the first five Rays batters he faced.
The change in the tide was a welcome relief for the Royals, who previously had no answer for a first-place Rays squad that entered Monday's game riding seven straight home wins.
"We got beat up pretty bad three days in a row," Meche said. "We wanted to at least salvage one game of the series. So luckily we did that and guys came through at the right times. We got a good win against a hot team."
Although Meche saw his personal "W" fade with Soria's blown save, he was still pleased with the end result.
"Yeah, I want to win games, but we won," he said. "No doubt about it, I'm going to take that."
The lone blemish in Monday's thrilling win and newly dubbed "happy flight" home, was Joey Gathright's inability to run out a bunt in the seventh inning.
While it appeared to have popped straight up, the ball initially eluded Rays catcher Dioner Navarro's glove, but Gathright stopped cold in the batter's box, making for an easy double play.
"Totally embarrassing, totally unacceptable," Hillman said of the play. "If we would have had the help to replace him, I would have replaced him."
For the rest of the Royals squad, the first-year skipper had nothing but praise, crediting his team for battling against a Rays squad that entered Monday with a Major League-leading 36 home wins.
"Anytime you go home with a win, it makes things better," Meche said of avoiding the sweep. "For one the flight's not as boring. You know, we were playing good ball for a while and we kind of got back into a slump. Hopefully we can pick it up again when we go home."
Or perhaps the Royals can help Buck celebrate birthday No. 28 every night.
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.