Lorenzo Cain cannot recall another instance in his career when an opponent targeted him on back-to-back days. This is his responsibility now, now that he operates as the No. 3 hitter for the defending American League champions. He absorbed one pitch on his elbow on Monday, wore another on his ankle on Wednesday night and he stepped to the plate in the eighth inning with both instances reverberating in his mind.
A No. 3 hitter plays a prominent role in a lineup. The man must absorb another team’s petulance. He must also power his teammates homeward. Cain was never before a target because he never before loomed as a major offensive threat. Here in 2015, he and the rest of his Royals teammates appear determined to rewrite the storylines established in years past.
The first pitch Cain saw from White Sox reliever Zach Putnam was a hanging splitter. Cain vaporized a two-run home run, No. 1 on the season, No. 18 in his career and No. 2 on the day for Kansas City in a 7-5 victory.
“I don’t hit many home runs,” Cain said. “But when I get them, I can tell. It felt great, off the bat.”
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The baseball landed 422 feet away from home plate. At last, the Royals (2-0) possessed a lead they could hold. They emerged with a victory over their division foes despite a shaky performance from starter Danny Duffy and 10 stranded bases runners.
Kansas City wielded power to compensate for their inefficiency with runners in scoring position. Eric Hosmer crushed a three-run shot in the third. The club required 13 games to swat three home runs in 2014. Two games into this season, they already have four.
“We’ve got guys that are capable of hitting home runs,” manager Ned Yost said. “They get in their comfort zone, and all of a sudden, the power’s going to increase. So I think you’re going to see increased power numbers from this club this year.”
The early going validated, for the time being, Yost’s unconventional lineup construction. He had installed Mike Moustakas, a man with a .299 career on-base percentage heading into 2015, into the second spot in the lineup. The maneuver caused eyebrows to rise. Yost countered that Moustakas has grown as a hitter and possesses the tools necessary to alter his pull-happy approach.
“The people who are dogging Moose hitting second are the guys who are just pure numbers guys,” Yost said. “You go back and you look at the pure numbers, and it’s like ‘Yeah, what are you doing?’ But what doesn’t fit into the equation is the human element, a guy’s work ethic and the ability for guys to get better.”
The structure paid immediate dividends on Wednesday. Moustakas whacked a first-inning curveball from Jose Quintana over the head of center fielder Adam Eaton for a double. Quintana smacked Lorenzo Cain on the left ankle with his next pitch. The pitch foreshadowed later events.
But first, Quintana squared off with Kendrys Morales. Morales punched a fastball into left field and third-base coach Mike Jirschele waved Moustakas home.
Unlike opening day, the Royals actually required the excess firepower. On three separate occasions, Duffy failed to maintain a one-run lead. He left two batters into the sixth with the tying run at third. He was charged for five runs in five innings, the majority resulting from a three-run blast by catcher Tyler Flowers.
“He hit a pitch that I didn’t execute on,” Duffy said. “He made me pay.”
Flowers hammered a lifeless changeup from Duffy in the second. The long ball followed a form of retaliation for Cain getting hit by Jeff Samardzija and Wednesday’s starter, Jose Quintana. Duffy fired a 96-mph fastball behind the head of designated hitter Adam LaRoche. LaRoche glared at Duffy. Umpire Hunter Wendelstedt warned both benches.
“You can only hit guys so many times before trouble develops,” Yost said.
For Duffy, though, the White Sox soon provided the trouble. LaRoche ripped a double and Gordon Beckham collected an infield single. Next came Flowers and his towering drive to left.
Hosmer delivered Kansas City’s rebuttal. He stepped to the plate after Quintana hit Moustakas with a 1-2 pitch and yielded a single to Cain. Hosmer crushed an 88-mph changeup at the thighs for his first home run of the season. He had managed only nine home runs in 2014, and only a pair off southpaws.
“As a group, we battled,” Hosmer said. “We know we’re going to get it done either way. That’s all you can ask for as a team.”
Yet Duffy failed to maintain the edge. He allowed a leadoff double to outfielder Avisail Garcia. Two batters later, he broke a string of five consecutive fastballs with a curveball to third baseman Gordon Beckham. Beckham dumped the pitch into center field. Cain dove but the sinking liner beat him to the ground. Duffy screamed into his glove not once but twice as he left the mound.
The pattern repeated itself a third time. In the fifth, Hosmer led off with a single. He took second on another single by Rios. With two outs, Perez punched a hit up the middle. Hosmer raced home and pointed to first base, where Perez was thumping his chest.
Duffy did not last long enough to see the lead actually disappear. His first pitch in the sixth was a slider. Jose Abreu doubled. His second pitch was a 93-mph fastball. Garcia singled and Abreu halted at third.
Yost pulled Duffy and inserted right-hander Jason Frasor. When Alexei Ramirez lifted a fly ball to right field, the game was tied on the sacrifice fly. The game was still tied when Cain came to bat in the eighth. Then he swung at Putnam’s harmless splitter, and altered the game’s outcome.
“This series has definitely been intense,” Cain said. “It’s been a battle between us and the White Sox. To hit a home run at that time of the game, put two extra runs on the board for my teammates, definitely a great feeling.”