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KC@ARI: Ventura fans eight, holds D-backs to two runs

Kansas City took two of three in Oakland from Aug. 1-3, and then both franchises got on a roll.

The Royals just swept the Giants at home and have won seven straight, putting them just a half-game back of the division-leading Tigers entering the week. A Kansas City victory tonight and a Detroit loss in Pittsburgh would leave the Royals atop the American League Central. K.C. hasn't been in first this late in the season since 2003, when it led the division as late as Aug. 29.

To get them there, the Royals turn to rookie Yordano Ventura, whose maturation process as a Major League pitcher is an ongoing process.

Take his last start, Wednesday night at Arizona. He clearly didn't have his best stuff but got through six innings and, despite eight hits and a walk, gave up just two runs.

"I didn't have a feel for my breaking ball or my offspeed [pitches], but I kept trying to throw it to try to get in a rhythm with it," Ventura said. "It was just one of those days when I didn't really have a feel for it."

Ventura managed his ninth victory of the season, which ties him for third among Major League rookies.

"He couldn't get his secondary stuff going on a consistent basis," manager Ned Yost said. "They were sitting dead-red fastball and putting good swings on it. But he made big pitches when he had to."

This will be the first time Ventura has faced the Athletics, who, like the Royals, have been playing well, winning five of their last seven. They're countering Ventura with Sonny Gray, who's struggled over his past two starts, losing both while sporting 5.56 ERA. It's only the second time in his two-year career he's taken back-to-back losses.

It's been a season of runs for him, mostly good ones. He went 5-1 with a 1.99 ERA over his first 10 starts, then 2-2 with a 5.50 ERA from May 27-June 28, then 5-1 with a 1.07 ERA from July 3-Aug. 1 (he won American League Pitcher of the Month for July) -- and now this.

In his last start, he gave up career highs in runs (seven, six earned) and hits (10) to the Rays.

"When you put your team in a hole like that, it puts a lot more pressure on the offense and it's harder to climb out of," Gray said. "That's just tough to do, especially when the other team is scoring so many runs early in the game."

He faced Kansas City in Oakland on Aug. 1 and allowed one run in seven innings. That was his only career start vs. the Royals. On the road this season, Gray is 5-1 with a 2.37 ERA and .201 opponents' average.

Royals: Aoki reasserts himself
Right fielder Nori Aoki lost his leadoff spot in the Royals' lineup for a seven-game stretch in July, but he's back on top these days.

Aoki went 2-for-2 with two walks Sunday to run his August on-base percentage to .447 (10 hits, six walks, and one hit-by-pitch in 38 plate appearances) in 10 games.

When he beat out a grounder to shortstop in the first inning Sunday, it was his 16th infield hit this season, including six safe bunts. His 90 infield hits since the start of 2012, when he joined the Brewers, is the most in the Majors.

And on Friday night against the Giants, he had two assists from right field in one inning. He was only the third outfielder in franchise history to do that, joining Bob Oliver in 1969 and Amos Otis in 1970.

On top of all that, Aoki got his first career grand slam last Tuesday night at Arizona; the blast also doubled as his first homer this season.

Athletics: Lowrie expected to return
Shortstop Jed Lowrie was out of the A's lineup Sunday for the series finale against Minnesota, with manager Bob Melvin giving him a day to rest his bruised right index finger.

Lowrie was at shortstop Friday and Saturday after going three straight games without playing the field.

"I had planned to play him two and give him one off anyway," Melvin said Sunday. "At this point in time, when you play, it really doesn't get any better.

"He's good enough to play, but it has been bothering him some, so if we give him a day off, hopefully we gain a little ground with it come tomorrow."

Lowrie has kept his finger wrapped and is 1-for-9 with a triple since sustaining the injury.

Worth noting
• Superfan SungWoo Lee, whose legend has grown as the story of his Royals loyalty has spread, will throw out the first pitch at Kauffman Stadium before the game.

Lee, from Seoul, South Korea, has been following the team since the 1990s -- waking up in the middle of the night to watch games. He received a glove from Royals broadcaster Jeff Montgomery on Sunday, eliciting a priceless on-air reaction.

• Yost and Melvin will resume their battle for victories in this series. Yost reached the 800-win mark last Tuesday and now has 804. Melvin had 802 entering Sunday's game against Minnesota.

• The A's lead the Majors with 11 wins when trailing after seven innings and six wins when trailing after eight.

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