Alcides Escobar wore a protective wrap over his right shoulder on Wednesday evening, but his left knee was bare. It was the health of this joint that led to Kansas City’s first round of fireworks with the Oakland Athletics in April. Ten weeks later, Escobar’s knee has healed and any lingering tension with the Athletics has faded.
A survey of Royals players about the upcoming series with Oakland, a rematch between two clubs who stoked such antipathy in each other in the season’s first month, revealed little. The Athletics incited expletives, thinly veiled threats and a couple rounds of chin music from the Royals last time. Now the mention of their upcoming opponent produced shrugs and rolled eyes. The club cast the feud with the Athletics as an afterthought.
“I don’t want to go over there to fight,” Escobar said. “Just continue to play baseball. If something happens, it happens.”
“Who knows?” said Edinson Volquez, who starts on Friday at O.co Coliseum. “We don’t expect to fight or something. We just want to play the game the right way.”
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“We’ve obviously moved on, playing good baseball,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “Speaking from our team, we’re over it. No one’s talking about anything that happened last time. So it’s probably up to them.”
The imbroglio occurred in the opening weeks of a season for a team desperate to prove their World Series run in 2014 was not a fluke. The Royals smarted over the dismal projections for their play this season. So they puffed their chests and swaggered when they burst through the gates with a seven-game winning streak, clambering over the dugout railing to celebrate homers and snarling at the clubs in their wake.
That passion boiled over against Oakland and later against the White Sox. Chastened by suspensions, wary of expending too much emotion too early in the year, the club settled into less riotous behavior. The lowered volume has not altered their performance: Kansas City (41-28) still holds the American League’s best record and carried a 3-1/2 game division lead into Thursday’s games.
Meanwhile, Oakland resides in last place in the American League West. This series may be more interesting for Kansas City from a scouting perspective. They could pursue super-utility player Ben Zobrist or lefty Scott Kazmir, one of their April antagonists, at the trade deadline. The two clubs are not division rivals.
“It’s over,” manager Ned Yost said. “In our mind, it’s over.”
The rhetoric was far livelier two months ago. On April 17, a Friday night at Kauffman Stadium, Oakland third baseman Brett Lawrie injured Escobar’s knee on a takeout slide at second base. Lawrie pointed his spikes toward Escobar, rather than the bag. If he aimed for the bag, he likely would have been safe.
The play infuriated the Royals. Lawrie said he texted Escobar to apologize and saw a nasty message in return. Escobar swore he never received a message. The incident appeared more farce than feud — until the next two games.
A day later, Yordano Ventura plunked Lawrie and received an ejection. Matters appeared settled, until Kazmir hit Lorenzo Cain on Sunday afternoon. Kelvin Herrera retaliated by throwing a 100-mph fastball behind Lawrie’s back later that day. Ejected from the proceedings, Herrera pointed to his head. His meaning was simple: “Think about it,” he said after the game.
Major League Baseball would fine Ventura and suspend Herrera for two games. The Royals cast Herrera’s message as more of a warning than a threat, which brought a discussion of semantics into the equation.
“I can see what he was saying,” Yost explained a day later. “We kind of talk about it all the time. ‘You better think about it. Because we’ve got guys that throw 100 mph. You want to mess around?’ That’s all he was doing.”
The Athletics did not appreciate this message. Oakland owner Lew Wolff called this explanation “despicable.”
From there, though, the two sides parted ways. The Royals brawled with the White Sox the next weekend and received a flurry of suspensions. Since then, the club has yet to engage in any on-field shenanigans. The Athletics have traveled a divergent path toward a summer of irrelevance.
Ventura will not play this weekend as he continues his rehabilitation on the disabled list from ulnar nerve irritation. Herrera indicated he carried no ill will with him to the Bay Area. But Kazmir starts for Oakland on Saturday. And Lawrie will be present.
Inside the clubhouse, some Royals view Lawrie as a nuisance, an occasionally reckless player who exposes both himself and opponents to injury with his aggression. But they do not appear to classify him as a villain, the way some on the team view White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija, who tussled with Cain during the 50-man row at U.S. Cellular Field later that April.
The Royals feel those early incidents fortified their identity. The team believed opposing clubs would attempt to rattle them. Their behavior, though criticized from afar, ended that method of attack.
“I think it proved to a lot of people that we have each other’s back,” Hosmer said. “That we’re not going to back down to anybody. Teams try to get to you in different ways.
“Obviously they know we’re an emotional team. We play with a lot of emotion, so I think certain teams try to come at us a different way. If anything, it helped us. It sparked us up. I think that’s probably the wrong approach to take with this team.”
Heading into the weekend, the Royals insisted there was no lasting animus with the Athletics. But if challenged, they will be ready to rise up together once more.
“Whatever happens, just continue to play hard,” Escobar said. “Let’s see what happens.”