JON KRAWCZYNSKI,AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — James Shields watched Lorenzo Cain race back to the wall in left-center field, leap in the air and snatch Trevor Plouffe’s drive away just before it landed in the bullpen.
The Kansas City right-hander thrust his arms in the air, Royals relievers erupted in jubilation and Cain bounded back toward the dugout with no worries about a groin injury that had kept him on the bench earlier this week.
It’s been a long, long time since the Royals were winning like this, and they’re enjoying every minute of it.
The Royals won their ninth straight game, stretching their longest winning streak in more than a decade by beating Minnesota 7-2 Thursday behind Billy Butler’s hitting and Cain’s highlight reel catch in center field.
The Royals last won nine straight when they opened the 2003 season at 9-0. The last time Kansas City won more in a row was a 10-game string in 1994, STATS said. After completing the three-game sweep of the Twins, they have opened a road trip 6-0 for the first time since 1980, when they went to the World Series.
“We’ve got great energy, youthful energy on our club,” Royals manager Ned Yost said, sitting in his office just a few feet away from a raucous clubhouse celebration. “Our guys, they love winning. They get into it.”
Butler had two hits and drove in two runs. Justin Maxwell had a hit and an RBI a day after being acquired in a trade with Houston.
Shields (6-7) gave up two runs on five hits and five walks in six innings for the Royals, who swept the three-game series and are showing potential to be a factor late in the season.
Scott Diamond (5-10) gave up seven runs and nine hits in five innings. Justin Morneau homered and doubled, but the Twins couldn’t take advantage of a sluggish start from Shields.
Shields needed 116 pitches to get through six innings. But against a Twins offense that doesn’t hit for power, doesn’t hit with runners in scoring position and doesn’t steal bases, he was never really in trouble.
Plouffe misplayed a potential double-play ball at third base to load the bases in the second inning, and Mike Moustakas and Maxwell drove runs in to get the Royals on the board. Eric Hosmer added a sacrifice fly in the third inning for a 3-0 lead.
Morneau, who hit .175 with four homers and five RBIs in all of July, went deep to straightaway center field to make it 3-2 in the third.
Shields was laboring in the fifth and the Royals were clinging to a 5-2 lead when Plouffe sent a sky-high fly ball toward the bullpen in left-center field. After a long run, Cain leaped at the wall and snatched the ball just before it was about to go over the fence, taking away what would have been a two-run homer.
“He’s been doing that all season long,” Shields said. “You’ve got to tip your cap to Lorenzo. He was off the last couple days. To come back and do that is phenomenal.”
Cain exchanged a high-five with Miguel Tejada and shouted “Let’s go!” as he ran back to the dugout, and Butler followed with a two-run single in the top of the sixth for some breathing room.
“I was pumped up,” Cain said. “I robbed a home run. That was exciting. It got the team excited and in that same inning we got the bats going. It was a big momentum boost.”
It’s been that kind of fun for the Royals of late, but they sure could use some cooperation from the Tigers and Indians in the AL Central.
Despite running off the longest active winning streak in the majors, they have made up little ground in the division. The Tigers had won nine of their last 10 heading into the day and Cleveland was 8-2 in that span to keep Kansas City at a comfortable distance.
“We’re playing some really good baseball and we believe in ourselves right now,” Shields said. “Going into this last two months, this is kind of the baseball we need to play.”
NOTES: Cain had a hit, drew three walks and scored twice. … Twins GM Terry Ryan said OF Josh Willingham (left knee) will leave for a rehab assignment with Triple-A Rochester this weekend. Willingham had surgery to repair a torn meniscus on July 3 and said he hoped to be back with the Twins as soon as next weekend’s series against the Chicago White Sox. … The Twins open a series against Houston at home on Friday. RHP Samuel Deduno (7-4, 3.18) will start the opener for the Twins. … The Royals head to New York for a three-game series against the Mets. RHP Wade Davis (5-9, 5.50) will start against New York RHP Dillon Gee (7-8, 4.13).
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.