In his first 85 games as a Royal, Nori Aoki interspersed patches of success with spates of disappointments and moments of slapstick.
He fielded a foul ball with his groin. He swung at a pitch that hit him. He disappointed team officials with his defense, lost his spot at the top of the batting order and only recently regained his place there.
During these tumultuous four months and change, before the fifth inning of Tuesday’s 12-2 romp over the Diamondbacks, Aoki had still not hit a home run. He added that feat to his resume with a first-pitch swing, turning on a 95-mph fastball from reliever Bo Schultz and hooking a grand slam down the right-field line.
He grinned as he rounded the bases, overcome with what he later called “one of the best feelings in the world.”
It was Aoki’s first grand slam in the majors, and the third of the season for his team. The slam capped an eight-run burst in the inning, the first occasion in club history in which the team hit a three-run homer and an additional grand slam, and allowed the Royals to cruise in the series opener at Chase Field.
Earlier in the fifth inning, Billy Butler crushed his sixth home run of the year. His blast was the team’s second three-run shot of the evening. Salvador Perez opened the scoring for Kansas City with a similar homer in the third. Alex Gordon recorded the 1,000th hit of his career, and his team set a new season-high for runs.
“I like that,” Perez said. “I like it when everybody hits bombs.”
“Any time you score 10 runs off three swings of the bat, I’ll take it,” manager Ned Yost said.
“A big way to start the series for us,” said Butler, who got his first four-hit game of the season.
With a loss by the Blue Jays, Kansas City, 58-53, pulled within a half-game of the second American League wild card. The production from Butler was encouraging, as he has replaced injured first baseman Eric Hosmer.
“I think that’s what playoff teams do is fill in for key parts of their team when they’re out,” Butler said. “Because there’s injuries every year. It’s a big couple of weeks for us, with that, and how we respond to that is a big thing.”
Danny Duffy, 6-10 with a 2.39 ERA, benefited from the deluge as he logged five innings of one-run baseball. Granted a sizable lead, an almost unthinkable advantage for pitcher cursed without run support this season, Duffy overcame a lack of efficiency in the early going and struck out seven.
After nipping Oakland for two victories in three days, the Royals repaired to the desert to face a wounded, woeful team from the National League West. Arizona has been devastated by injury and underperformance, and recently sold off a slew of veterans at the July 31 trade deadline.
The lineup unveiled for Tuesday’s game lacked many hitters who struck fear, but Duffy still needed 25 pitches to complete the first inning. Catcher Miguel Montero soaked up 10 of them. After a ground-rule double by Jordan Pacheco and an RBI single by Mark Trumbo, Montero fouled off seven consecutive pitches, five of them fastballs. At last Duffy froze him with a slider for the third strike.
In his previous five starts, Duffy surrendered only seven earned runs. He lost all three decisions during those games due to a dearth of run support. His teammates aided him on Tuesday, starting with Perez’s shot in the third inning.
“That just shows you what our offense is capable of,” Duffy said.
At the All Star Game last month, Perez rubbed shoulders with the game’s best. But since starting at catcher for the American League, his bat had been on a sabbatical. During his first 14 second-half games, Perez batted .193 without a walk.
The coaching staff continues to preach patience with Perez. He showed some signs in his first at-bat, punching a slider for a single in a seven-pitch encounter. His second at-bat featured a more productive outcome.
Alcides Escobar had opened the door with a leadoff single. Aoki reached on a walk. With two outs, Arizona starter Wade Miley spun a slider inside and returned in the same vicinity with a fastball. Perez passed on both pitches. The team’s scouting report called for Miley to throw offspeed pitches when behind in the count, so Perez was not surprised by a flat change-up on the outer half of the plate, which he deposited on the other side of the left-field fence.
The blast was a mere precursor for the fifth-inning fusillade. Earlier in the afternoon, Butler gazed at a broadcast from the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium. An on-screen graphic showed Brett Gardner, the undersized, slap-hitting outfielder, had 15 homers this season. Butler saw the sum and could only shake his head.
His own home-run total leaves him sheepish, ticking off excuses, searching for answers, frustrated all the while. He achieved a moment of relief in the fifth inning. Miley grooved a 93-mph fastball over the middle, and Butler powered it into deep left center.
“Him and Gordy are keys to our offense,” Yost said. “They’re both swinging the bat real well right now.”
Arizona displayed their ungainly brand of baseball as the frame continued. Four batters later, Miley uncorked a wild pitch, and Gordon considered breaking from third base. Diamondbacks catcher Montero hung up Lorenzo Cain in a rundown near first, but Cain managed to evade a tag at second base, and Gordon waltzed home from third.
With two outs, Miley fanned Duffy with a slider, only to watch the pitch bounce away from Montero. Duffy was safe at first. The bases were loaded, and the stage was set.
The next pitch of the game was thrown by Schultz, a non-descript right-hander pitching in his fourth big-league game. Aoki attacked without fear. He had not hit a home run since Sept. 27, 2012.
“I know home runs aren’t really expected out of me,” Aoki said through his interpreter, Kosuke Inaji. “But it’s nice to have one home run, as opposed to no home runs.”