Starter Zack Greinke went just three innings, but a succession of his old bullpen buddies finished the job in a 2-1 Royals victory on Friday night over the first-place Cleveland Indians.
Royals manager Buddy Bell's plan was to have a "piggyback" ready to carry Greinke. That's because the right-hander, making his first start since May 6, would not be permitted to pitch very long.
So when he'd thrown 48 pitches, a plateau he'd passed just once in 38 relief appearances, Bell launched his plan. Even though Greinke had given up just one single and faced the minimum nine batters, the call went to piggybacker John Bale.
"I figured it'd be me because they have a lot of lefties in the lineup," Bale said. "I knew Greinke was going to throw three or four, at the most."
Bale reeled off three shutout innings. He struck out five and gave up two singles. It was his success that was crucial to Operation Piggyback.
"I thought the question mark was how long Bale could do it," Greinke said. "He's thrown some really good outings and other times he's thrown a lot of pitches. Today was the best I've seen him throw. It was pretty amazing."
Bale, who'd been off pitching in Japan for three years and was delayed by injury this season, got his first Major League victory since Aug. 29, 2003. He was with the Cincinnati Reds then and beat the St. Louis Cardinals.
Greinke, with 25,640 in the Kauffman Stadium stands, earned the satisfaction of a successful return to the rotation.
"No runs. You can't do any better than that, so that's good, I think," Greinke said.
Once Bale carried the game through the sixth, the operation became a more typical bullpen exercise. Jimmy Gobble and Joel Peralta shared the seventh inning -- and responsibility for the Indians' only run. (Gobble walked Grady Sizemore and Peralta gave up an RBI single to Ryan Garko.)
David Riske became the Royals' fifth pitcher in the eighth and worked out of a jam. Asdrubal Cabrera's drive to deep right field was missed by Emil Brown and it went for a one-out triple. Riske, though, struck out Kenny Lofton and retired Casey Blake on a groundout.
"I thought the strikeout of Lofton was huge, but now you have to deal with Casey Blake, who's had a great year, as well. There's no really easy out in the lineup, so every out you get is big," Bell said.
Once Cabrera got to third, Riske relied on a simple approach.
"They can make an out and still score the tying run, so you've got to be really aggressive and pitch to your strengths," Riske said.
The excitement wasn't over, though. Closer Joakim Soria gave up a walk and a single -- sandwiched around Victor Martinez's gapper that was tracked down by center fielder David DeJesus.
Garko hit a towering infield popup.
"He's a big, big, big hitter, but I just tried to face him like anyone," Soria said, "and that happened."
Jhonny Peralta rolled out and the game was over.
The Royals again were home alone in fourth place in the American League Central because the Chicago White Sox lost twice and toppled into the cellar.
While the Royals were running six pitchers into this fray, the Indians needed only large left-hander, C.C. Sabathia. He went the entire eight innings and gave up just five hits.
"When you beat their big guy in C.C. -- who had great stuff tonight -- that might've been as good a stuff as we've seen all year, and you're able to come out with a 2-1 win, that makes it all that more special," Bell said.
Mark Grudzielanek walked to open the fourth and Billy Butler rifled a double to left. Brown bounced out and Grudzielanek scored. In the fifth, Tony Pena was hit by a pitch and moved around on a passed ball, a sacrifice bunt and Esteban German's sac fly.
It wasn't much of an offense, but it was just enough.
Operation Piggyback was a success.
"Honestly, I had no clue. ... I'm just glad we can move on from this, because you don't want to use up your whole bullpen early on in the middle innings," Bell said with a smile.
"You've just got to be careful, and, really, John Bale saved [us], I think."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.