A rare meeting against the Atlanta Braves provided a glimmer of joy.
Duda hit a tie-breaking, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning and the Royals survived a shaky ninth to beat the first-place Braves 5-4 on Tuesday night.
Alex Gordon also homered for the Royals and drove in two runs. Both starters — Atlanta’s Dallas Keuchel and Kansas City’s Danny Duffy — went six strong innings with double-digit strikeouts but didn’t factor in the decision.
With the game tied at 2, Royals manager Ned Yost needed a pinch-hitter to start the eighth against Anthony Swarzak, who had a sparkling 0.42 ERA since coming to the Braves in May.
Yost considered a pair of options.
“We could pinch-hit one of our leadoff guys, try to get on and steal a base,” Yost said. “Or we could pinch-hit Duda and take a shot at the home run.”
Duda, hitting just .150, got the call.
Boy, did he come through.
Duda drove a 2-2 pitch from Swarzak (0-1) over the wall in right-center for a 435-foot homer. It was the fourth pinch-hit homer of Duda’s career, the most recent one coming last September, when he played for the Braves.
It was Kansas City’s first pinch-hit homer of the season.
“We opted to take a shot at the home run, and dadgum if he didn’t get it,” Yost said. “That was cool.”
The Royals added two more runs in the eighth, taking advantage of three walks and a hit batter. Swarzak faced three batters, didn’t get anyone out and was charged with all three runs, pushing his Atlanta ERA to 1.68.
“That’s the first time since we got him — and we’ve brought him in some tough situations — that he didn’t bring back a zero,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
Keuchel allowed just three hits and struck out 12 but left the game trailing 2-1. Duffy was in line to get the win after surrendering one run on five hits with 11 strikeouts, only to have the Braves scratch out a run in the seventh. Freddie Freeman fouled off three straight two-strike, two-out sinkers from side-armer Tim Hill (1-0) before guiding an RBI single up the middle to make it 2-2.
“When you’re facing a guy like (Keuchel), you know you’ve got to be as precise as you can,” Duffy said. “You don’t have a whole lot of leeway.”
After Keuchel retired the first nine Kansas City hitters — six with strikeouts — Whit Merrifield reached base by dropping a bunt single down the third-base line. He came around to score when Gordon followed with a double down the right-field line — ending Keuchel’s streak of 17 straight innings without allowing an earned run to the Royals, going back to April 8, 2017.
In the sixth, Gordon sent a 3-2 fastball over the Chop House restaurant in right-field to put the Royals ahead for the first time. Right fielder Nick Markakis barely moved as the 417-foot drive sailed over his head.
The teams met for the first time since 2016, when the Royals were coming off a World Series title and Atlanta was in the midst of a major rebuilding job.
The roles are reversed for this series. The Braves have a 5 1/2-game lead in the NL East while Kansas City is saddled with one of the baseball’s worst records.
Yost returned to Atlanta, where he coached under Bobby Cox for a dozen seasons and is about 90 miles northeast of his offseason home, a 550-acre farm in Pine Mountain, Georgia.
The Royals manager has driven past SunTrust Park on numerous occasions but this was his first time inside the 3-year-old home of the Braves.
“I took the bus over here because I had no idea where to go or how to get in,” Yost quipped.
GETTING ON BASE
Ronald Acuna extended his career-best on-base streak to 28 games when he was hit by a pitch in the third. He also walked and reached base on a forceout in the seventh.
Braves LHP Max Fried threw a bullpen session Tuesday and could be ready to rejoin the rotation by this weekend. Fried (10-4, 4.08 ERA) has been on the DL since July 16 with a blister on his left index finger. If Fried makes it through another bullpen session, he would get the start Sunday at Philadelphia.
Braves RHP Julio Teheran (5-6, 3.60) will make his second career start against the Royals when he goes in the finale of the brief two-game series on Wednesday. Kansas City will counter with RHP Brad Keller (6-9, 4.18), a 2013 graduate of Flowery Branch High School in Atlanta’s sprawling northern suburbs.