KANSAS CITY — Alcides Escobar pumped his fist. Jarrod Dyson did a backflip. And for the first time in more than a decade, the Kansas City Royals were in first place in mid-August.
Yordano Ventura outpitched Sonny Gray in a matchup of talented young starters Monday night, and Escobar drove in the go-ahead run as Kansas City beat the Oakland Athletics 3-2 to take over the AL Central lead from Detroit — the win was the Royals' eighth straight.
"You want to be in first place. Our goal was to get back to first place," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "Now our goal is to stay in first place."
The Royals trailed the Tigers by eight games on July 21, but their 16th win in 19 games wiped away the deficit and gave them the lead at the latest point in a season since 2003.
"We're playing great," said Escobar, who drove in a run in the second inning before his two-out single off Gray (12-6) in the seventh gave Kansas City the lead for good.
Ventura lasted through sixth innings before giving way to Kelvin Herrera (3-2), who tossed a spotless seventh. Wade Davis breezed through the eighth and Greg Holland worked the ninth for his 35th save, though it didn't come without a little drama.
Josh Donaldson led off the ninth with a single, the first hit by the Athletics since the second inning, and Brandon Moss drew a walk. But after a brief conference on the mound, Holland got Derek Norris to bounce into a double play and Stephen Vogt to fly out to end the game.
"He has the ability to focus pitch to pitch, which good closers can do," Yost said. "You get first and second with his stuff, you just have a feeling he's going to get out of it."
Kansas City put pressure on right from the start, when Dyson and Omar Infante opened the game with back-to-back singles. Gray might have escaped the jam, though, if right fielder Josh Reddick hadn't flubbed a routine throw to the infield after Infante's hit. It allowed Dyson to reach third base easily, and he scored on Salvador Perez's double-play groundout.
"It's pretty embarrassing," Reddick said, "especially since it cost us a run. And we end up losing by one run, so it doesn't make your feel any better."
After Escobar made it 2-0 in the second, Oakland answered with some help from Ventura, who worked to overcome command problems most of the night. John Jaso led off with a single, Coco Crisp worked a walk and Donaldson earned another free pass to load the bases with two outs.
Moss hit a full-count pitch up the middle to score both runners and knot the game.
Yost pulled Ventura after a double play got the rookie right-hander through the sixth. And when Gray faltered in the seventh and Kansas City took the lead, one of the stingiest bullpens in baseball made sure the smallest of margins was enough.
"Those three guys at the end are as good as you get," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "They don't worry about righty-lefty. They feel when they get to the seventh inning with a lead, they feel pretty good about it."
Leaders of the pack
The Royals have not trailed since the first inning of Thursday's game in Arizona, a span of 44 innings. "There's just a real confidence right now when we step on the field," Yost said.
Herrera has worked 17 1-3 consecutive scoreless dating to June 27. That's the third-longest stretch in the majors behind Davis, who has gone 17 2-3 innings, and the A's Ryan Cook, who has gone 19 innings.
Gray struck out a career-low two batters while losing to Kansas City for the second time in his young career. The only other team he's lost to twice is Baltimore.
Athletics: SS Jed Lowrie was back in the starting lineup. He's missed time recently with a bruised right index finger.
Royals: 1B Eric Hosmer continues to wear a brace on his right hand after breaking his third metacarpal. He hopes to return in September.
LHP Jon Lester, who beat the Royals in his first start with Oakland, tries to move to 3-0 since arriving from Boston in a July 31 trade. Kansas City counters with RHP Jeremy Guthrie.