KANSAS CITY -- When it came to reviewing the pitching performance of Royals left-hander Jason Vargas, his most important critic was succinct.
"Wow!" said Royals manager Ned Yost,
Vargas certainly was boffo, five-stars, dazzling and all those other Hollywood descriptions as he pitched the Royals to a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night.
Though eight innings, he had a three-hitter working and Yost let him take a shot at completing a shutout for the Kauffman Stadium crowd of 12,087. But Ben Zobrist led off the Rays' ninth with a home run.
"It was right over the heart of the plate. He put a good swing on it and that's all she wrote," Vargas said.
In fact, that was end of Vargas' night and closer Greg Holland had to write the finish to it.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar lightened the burden of a 1-for-19 start to his season with a bases-loaded double that vaulted Vargas into a 4-0 lead in the sixth inning. Until then the Royals were clinging to a 1-0 edge.
A cloud was cast over the victory when Royals second baseman Omar Infante was struck and cut in the jaw by a pitch from Heath Bell in the seventh inning and was taken out of the game. He was undergoing tests to determine the extent of his injuries.
If there were doubters about Vargas when the Royals signed him as a free agent over the winter, they should be feeling better by now. In his first two starts Vargas had given up just two runs in 15 innings for a 1.20 ERA.
But this was his first victory for Kansas City.
"He pitched great but he also gave our bullpen a much-needed break," Yost said. "His ability to command a baseball and change speeds was very evident today but he works in such a professional manner on the mound. He works quick, he keeps everybody in the game. He's around the strike zone. He can pitch effectively in, he can pitch effectively away, change speeds and really keep a good offense off-balance."
Vargas began the game with two strikeouts which, curiously, happened to be his only two of the game. Zobrist and Evan Longoria each had two of the four hits against him. Vargas walked just one.
"He was just locating really well. Mixing up his pitches really well and keeping the ball down," the Rays' Wil Myers said. "I didn't see too many mistakes that he made over the plate. When he leaves the ball over the plate, he's hittable. But he pitched well today."
Vargas spread the credit around.
"The defense made some great plays tonight, some huge plays. It could've been a lot different game," he said.
Center fielder Lorenzo Cain caught seven of the 12 fly balls hauled in by the outfield. Right fielder Nori Aoki made an excellent running catch in the first inning as well.
"They can go get it out there. If Cain doesn't catch some of those balls that go to the track it could've changed the complexity of the game," Vargas said.
Escobar gave Vargas the margin he needed to go after his sixth shutout of his career.
"You need a little leeway to do that," Yost said. "That big double allowed us the opportunity to put Vargy back out in the eighth and in the ninth inning to see if he could get through it. So it was a huge hit for us."
Aoki's leadoff triple and Eric Hosmer's single gave the Royals a 1-0 lead in the first inning against left-hander Matt Moore. That's all they got against Moore who had to leave with a sore left elbow during the fifth inning.
In the sixth, Alex Gordon got a one-out single off Cesar Ramos and right-hander Heath Bell took over. Salvador Perez singled and, after Mike Moustakas struck out, Lorenzo Cain beat out an infield hit to load the bases. Up came Escobar, who drove Bell's 1-0 pitch against the lower half of the left-field fence.
"I was looking for a fastball and he threw a fastball on the second pitch," Escobar said. "I hit the ball good, but not really good -- the important thing was it was a double with the bases loaded."
Yep, and so when Vargas got through eight shutout innings on 108 pitches, he got a chance to go for it.
"You never know until it's all said and done, but if you don't try, you can't get one," he said.
Yost told him to hurry his project along.
"I told him I was to going to give somewhere between 115 and 120 pitches so get your work done quick," Yost said.
Meantime, Holland was moving around in the bullpen, just in case.
"I like to keep my body loose regardless because you never know what situation is going to arise," Holland said. "They called down in the eighth and said, 'If it's a save situation, Greg's in.' So I got on the mound and made a few throws and, fortunately, one of the only mistakes Vargy made all night was on the solo home run. But at that point I was hot enough to throw six or eight pitches and go in the ballgame."
So Holland trotted to the mound and, although he gave up a run on two hits, notched his third save.
Actually, he preferred his view as a spectator from the bullpen while Vargas was working.
"I could get used to that, in fact the whole bullpen could," Holland said. "We could get fat down there eatin' snacks."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.