Nunez continues brilliance in win

Nunez continues brilliance in win

KANSAS CITY -- Joey Gathright opened at Triple-A Omaha and was viewed as a fourth outfielder in the Majors. Leo Nunez started 2007 on the disabled list and projected as a reliever. Alex Gordon slumped the first couple of months under Rookie of the Year expectations and questions swirled concerning his talent.

Helped by a huge game Saturday night, the trio continues to reshape perceptions. All three players were instrumental in the Royals' 4-1 victory over the Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium.

Nunez set the foundation with six innings of one-run ball on a night where the game-time temperature was 95 degrees. The 23-year-old right-hander allowed just two hits and improved to 2-0 this season.

"I thought he was outstanding," manager Buddy Bell said.

The same applies for Gathright and Gordon. Gathright killed the Blue Jays softly with two stolen bases, two hits and an incredible home run-saving catch that ended the game. Gordon flashed power with a two-run homer, a triple, a single and a stolen base.

"Joey made a great catch," Bell said. "Alex had a great night."

Collectively, they helped KC win its 51st game of the season -- and continued to turn around their individual seasons. Nunez, who entered the season on the disabled list, was pushed into his first Major League start July 17 against the Red Sox in Fenway Park and tossed four innings of one-run ball.

Two more superb outings (including a six shutout innings in a start) started to change Nunez's role. Projected in a relief role because of a mid-90s fastball and thin frame, Nunez is viewed as a stopgap until Jorge De La Rosa and other options return from the disabled list.

That perception continues to change -- especially after Saturday. Because of the ineffectiveness of the back end of KC's rotation, Nunez, with a 1.80 ERA this year, could emerge an unlikely long-term starter.

"He is starting to change my mind and certainly deserves a few more chances -- more than a few probably," Bell said.

Nunez tossed 38 pitches in the first two innings, but didn't allow a run. After a nine-pitch strikeout of Troy Glaus, Nunez believed he could work deep in the game.

"That one at-bat made me think that I could go longer and I could pitch [well] today," Nunez said through translator Joel Peralta.

He certainly did. Nunez was nicked for a fifth-inning run on a homer by Greg Zaun. The only other hit was a double by Vernon Wells.

"He doesn't back down from anybody," Bell said. "We have always known that when he competes, he has been unable to keep the ball down in the zone consistently. He has certainly been able to do that since he has been up here."

Gathright entered this season as one of the fastest men in baseball. However, he was someone who couldn't start everyday because of a .251 career average and few walks.

After an early stint with Omaha that yielded one of the best on-base percentages in the Pacific Coast League, Gathright has emerged the best candidate for the everyday left-fielder spot -- and he is even making a push to bat leadoff. Asked if he should play everyday, he said, "Whenever they put me in the lineup."

That's been more and more.

Since he returned on Aug. 1 from a short Triple-A stint, Gathright has started eight of nine games and carries a .448 average. He is batting .363 with a team-high .420 on-base percentage this season.

On Saturday, he drove in the first run when he fisted a 97-mph Dustin McGowan fastball over a drawn-in infield, stole a base and scored the go-ahead run in the fifth. His two steals were two of the team's five stolen bases -- the most KC has stolen in a game since June 19, 2004, against the Phillies.

"It looked like things have finally started to come together for him," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "When he gets on base, he can wreck havoc with the best of them."

Gathright can catch, too. In the bottom of the ninth, Aaron Hill hit a two-out blast off Joakim Soria to deep left-center that appeared to be a two-run homer. However, Gathright leapt, put his glove over the fence, and made the catch.

"That was unbelievable," Soria said.

So was Gordon. The third baseman continued to turn around his season that yielded a .173 average in early June and a possible demotion to Triple-A. However, in his last 53 games, Gordon has emerged as one of the top third baseman in baseball. His 3-for-3 night upped his average to .307 since June 6.

Gordon would have had a chance for the cycle in the bottom of the ninth, but he never received a fourth at-bat.

Still, Gordon finished with one of his best games in the Majors -- and so did Gathright and Nunez in another performance that changes perceptions.

Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.