"That wasn't the way we drew it up, to say the least," said Royals catcher John Buck.
But a game-tying home run by Alex Gordon in the seventh and a four-run rally in the eighth fueled by Buck's three-run double enabled the Royals to avert the broom with a 6-2 victory before 22,674 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
"They were playing well," Buck said. "And to be able to pull one out and get a little bit of momentum going to Oakland was good."
It was a narrow escape, to be sure. But the Royals indeed head to Oakland for this weekend's three-game series in a much better frame of mind than if the Houdini act hadn't happened.
On a night when starting pitcher Leo Nunez was forced to an early exit with a blister problem, when the offense looked stagnant against journeyman-lefty John Rheinecker, and when even a 22-minute rainstorm delayed things on getaway night, the Royals were rewarded for hanging tough through the final out.
Nunez finally encountered some adversity in his fourth big-league start. A troublesome blister below the knuckle of his right thumb began to take shape during his pregame bullpen warmup.
The young pitcher who had allowed just two earned runs in his first 16 innings as a starter knew something was amiss when he surrendered a leadoff home run to Frank Catalanotto in the bottom of the first. That erased the 1-0 lead provided when David DeJesus walked, Mark Grudzielanek doubled and Billy Butler followed with a run-scoring groundout in the top of the first.
"I saw him looking at his thumb in the first and second innings," Buck said. "But he's a gamer, and he kept pitching."
Nunez retired seven of the next eight hitters after the leadoff homer and appeared on his way to another quality start. A sudden downpour forced Nunez to sit out a 22-minute rain delay before the bottom of the fourth, but he was back on the mound when play resumed. The next batter, Marlon Byrd, then bounced a sharp one-hopper off the back of Nunez's right knee for an infield single.
Nunez threw two pitches to the next hitter, Brad Wilkerson, before manager Buddy Bell and trainer Nick Swartz saw reason to visit the mound. But it wasn't the knee that was the issue. It was the torn callous that had pulled open, preventing Nunez from properly gripping and releasing his pitches.
Bell said he doesn't believe the injury will prevent Nunez from taking his next scheduled turn on Tuesday in Chicago, but the training staff will be busy this weekend toughening up the damaged skin. Nunez, his thumb tightly wrapped in a bandage after the game, insisted he would be OK for his next start.
The Royals' bullpen was thus forced into early action. Left-hander John Bale escaped the fourth but gave up a run on three singles in the fifth. Rookie right-hander Ryan Braun hustled in and got the biggest out of the night, retiring Byrd on a fly ball to center to escape a bases-loaded jam in the fifth.
Braun kept the Royals in the game with 2 2/3 scoreless innings, but the offense remained unable to solve Rheinecker, a left-hander of modest velocity who lugged a 6.75 ERA into the game. Rheinecker had been on the verge of removal from the Rangers' rotation until scheduled starter Brandon McCarthy landed on the disabled list Wednesday.
"Their guy is one of those guys who can be tough to hit off, if you don't see him real often," Bell said.
Relying heavily on his changeup, Rheinecker nursed his 2-1 lead into the seventh, but lost it when Gordon drove an 0-2 pitch over the right-field wall with one out. Gordon's 11th home run tied the game 2-2.
After Rheinecker retired the first hitter of the eighth with his 89th pitch, Rangers manager Ron Washington opted to make a change, for which the Royals would prove grateful. Right-handed reliever Willie Eyre (4-6) entered and five of the next six batters reached base, four of them scoring.
Singles by Grudzielanek and Butler started the rally, putting runners on the corners with one out. A Mark Teahen tapper up the first-base line scored the go-ahead run, as Grudzielanek's head-first slide beat first baseman Wilkerson's throw home and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia's tag.
Gordon was intentionally walked to load the bases with two out, and Buck made the Rangers pay with a three-run double that bounced to the wall in right-center field.
"It was nice to see him get a big hit right there and give us some separation," Bell said.
Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria finished up with a scoreless eighth and ninth, respectively, leaving the rookie Braun (1-0) with his first Major League win in his 25th big-league game. Braun confessed he hadn't kept a souvenir baseball from the game, and wondered whether the pink "Hello Kitty" backpack the veterans make the rookie carry on road trips might have a memento hidden inside.
"He's a kid with a good arm and no real experience," Bell said. "We need to see more of him. But he was about as good as he could get tonight. And we needed that."