KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Bruce Chen had already pitched out of trouble each of the first three innings when the Royals left-hander issued a pair of walks and served up a base hit to Alex Rios in the fourth.
The bases were loaded, there was nobody out and the White Sox — one of the hottest teams in baseball and winners of five straight — were poised to deliver the crushing blow.
It never happened.
Never even came close.
Chen managed to retire three straight batters without a ball getting out of the infield, and then carried on into the seventh inning. Billy Butler's sacrifice fly and a two-run double by Alex Gordon was enough to give the Royals a 3-0 victory over the AL Central leaders Wednesday night.
"Bruce Chen was right on top of his game," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "I told him after he was done, 'You did a great job of pitching yourself into trouble in the fourth inning and even a better job of pitching yourself out of it.' Bruce did a phenomenal job."
Chen (11-12) scattered five hits and three walks over 6 2-3 innings to win for just the second time in six starts. The crafty veteran also stranded a runner on second in the sixth before getting some help from reliever Kelvin Herrera to escape more trouble in the seventh.
Herrera then pitched around two base runners in the eighth, and Greg Holland yielded a two-out double in the ninth before finishing for his 14th save in 17 chances.
"We didn't panic," Chen said. "We stuck to our game plan."
Alcides Escobar finished with three hits, all of them off Chicago ace Chris Sale (17-7), and the Royals who staved off official elimination for one more day. The White Sox (81-67) had their lead in the division trimmed to two games over the Detroit Tigers.
"This one stinks and you have to move on," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said.
Chicago will be happy to move on from playing the Royals and start rooting for them.
Kansas City improved to 8-2 in their last 10 meetings by evening the three-game series, and a win in the finale Thursday night would make the Royals 6-1 in the teams' last seven series.
They could become Chicago's biggest ally down the stretch, though. Kansas City plays seven of its final 13 games against second-place Detroit, beginning with a four-game series Monday.
"We're going to have to win no matter what. We have to take care of our business," Ventura said. "It's difficult when you play like this."
The White Sox wasted another strong start by Sale by going 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position, stranding four at third base, four more at second and three at first.
Chicago also went 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position in winning the series opener.
Meanwhile, the Royals scratched out a run in the third on a sacrifice fly by Butler, and then bore down behind Eric Hosmer's leadoff double and Escobar's intentional walk in the seventh.
After a brief visit at the mound, Sale remained in the game to face Gordon, and he walloped a pitch to the wall in left. It appeared that Viciedo would have room to make the catch, but the ball fell onto the track for a double, allowing two runs to cross and giving Kansas City a 3-0 lead.
"Our approach is not to try to do too much against Sale with his kind of stuff, his deceptive delivery," Gordon said. "Just stay simple and make something happen."
The three runs were enough to give the 23-year-old Sale his third loss against Kansas City — he's only lost four other times this season. He's also just 2-5 over his last seven road starts.
"Chen came out and threw as well as he's ever pitched tonight against us," Sale said, his voice barely above a whisper. "He out-pitched me tonight."
NOTES: Alejandro De Aza matched a career high with four hits for Chicago. He was a homer shy of the cycle. ... LHP Francisco Liriano will pitch the series finale for Chicago against RHP Jeremy Guthrie. ... Both managers announced their weekend rotations. The White Sox will go with Jake Peavy, Jose Quintana and Gavin Floyd against the Angels, while the Royals will start Luis Mendoza, Will Smith and Jake Odorizzi against Cleveland. Odorizzi will be making his big league debut.