By IAN HARRISON
TORONTO (AP) — Angel Zerpa pitched five solid innings in his first major league start, Bobby Witt Jr. hit a tiebreaking homer and the Kansas City Royals overcame the absence of 10 unvaccinated players to beat the Toronto Blue Jays 3-1 on Thursday night.
“One of the best wins of the year, all things considered,” manager Mike Matheny said.
Nate Eaton homered in his big league debut as the Royals won for the fifth time in six games.
Foreign nationals who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 are not allowed to enter Canada, save for limited exceptions that require a 14-day quarantine. Unvaccinated baseball players are placed on the restricted list, which means they are not paid and do not accrue major league service time.
Among the 10 players on Kansas City’s 26-man roster who stayed home were All-Star outfielder Andrew Benintendi, two-time All-Star Whit Merrifield, future cornerstones Kyle Isbel and MJ Melendez and outfielder Michael A. Taylor.
Also barred were first baseman Hunter Dozier, right-handed starters Brad Keller and Brady Singer, reliever Dylan Coleman and backup catcher Cam Gallagher.
“We just abide by the rules that are given to us,” Matheny said before the game. “It’s not how we’d design it but it is where we are and now we move forward.”
The Royals recalled infielder Nick Pratto and selected Eaton, infielder Michael Massey, catcher Freddy Fermin and outfielder Brewer Hicklen from Triple-A Omaha. Infielder Maikel Garcia, catcher Sebastian Rivero and left-hander Zerpa were recalled from Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
Pratto was in the starting lineup at first base and Eaton was in center field with Rivero catching Zerpa (2-0), who allowed one run and four hits, walked two and struck out two.
“Every time we’ve seen him he looks like a top-shelf starter,” Matheny said. “He came in today against an all right-handed lineup that’s a very potent lineup and kept making good pitches all the way through. It was just a great display of pitching.”
Jackson Kowar pitched two innings, Taylor Clarke handled the eighth and Scott Barlow finished for his 16th save in 18 chances.
Eaton’s mother and brother were sitting behind Kansas City’s first base dugout, giving them a great view of his homer.
“Right around second base I was jogging and the only voice I could hear was my mom screaming,” Eaton said. “It was awesome. Those are the people that have been there my entire life and sacrificed so much for me to get to this point. Without them, I couldn’t have been here. To make them proud is pretty awesome.”
Blue Jays right-hander Kevin Gausman (6-7) started for the first time since taking a line drive off his ankle in a July 2 start against Tampa Bay. Gausman allowed two runs and seven hits in six innings. He walked two and struck out six.
“Great to get him back out there before the (All-Star) break,” new Blue Jays manager John Schneider said. “We liked what we saw, obviously. Everything was there as it usually is. Just a couple bad pitches.”
Nicky Lopez doubled off Gausman to begin the fifth and scored on a base hit by Edward Olivares, who was thrown out trying for a double. Witt followed with his 13th home run.
Toronto’s Matt Chapman homered off Zerpa in the bottom half, his 14th, but Eaton restored the two-run cushion by connecting off Anthony Banda in the ninth.
Zerpa earned his first career victory with two scoreless innings of relief against Detroit in Game 2 of Monday’s doubleheader.
Keller, who started Monday, can be replaced Friday. Singer, who last pitched Wednesday, can be replaced for Sunday’s series finale.
Royals Pitching coach Cal Eldred, assistant hitting coach Keoni De Renne and bullpen catcher Parker Morin also did not travel. Triple-A Omaha manager Scott Thorman was brought along to assist Matheny’s staff.
Olivares, one of Kansas City’s remaining regulars, didn’t get the Royals off to a positive start. After opening the game with a single, he broke for second but lost sight of Witt’s liner to right, turned for third and was doubled off first by 120 feet. Olivares was later thrown out trying to steal second, then thrown out trying to stretch out a double. Hicklen ran for Olivares after he singled in the eighth, but got caught in a rundown between second and third.
Eaton is the fourth player in Royals history to homer in his first game, joining Ryan O’Hearn (2018 against the White Sox), Mark Quinn (1999 against the Angels) and Clint Hurdle (1977 against Seattle).
Blue Jays: LHP Yusei Kikcuhi (neck) will throw a second bullpen session Friday. Kikuchi has been out since July 6.
Royals RHP Zack Grienke (3-5, 4.52 ERA) starts Friday against Blue Jays RHP Alek Manoah (9-4, 2.34). Manoah is 2-0 in two career starts against the Royals, covering 13 scoreless innings.
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