September 21, 2013

Confident Eric Hosmer carries Royals down stretch

They started with words, not swings. The best player in franchise history put his king’s life on hold to help the next generation of hope. George Brett looked at Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer and saw a few things to fix. Four months later, Hosmer has become one of the American League’s better hitters, with 18 hits in his last 12 games.

They started with words, not swings.

The best player in franchise history put his king’s life on hold to help the next generation of hope. George Brett looked at Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer and saw a few mechanical things to fix. His stride was too big. He was too close to the plate, choking off those long arms. But mostly, Brett saw a broken hitting soul.

Others saw it, too. Executives from other teams. Scouts who remembered feeling goose bumps on their arms watching Hosmer’s pure, natural swing — much of it natural, the rest molded into a wicked combination of violence and control with long days in a batting cage back home in Florida.

Where did that player go? What happened?

How did a talent worth $6 million out of high school and the cover of Baseball America while in the minor leagues turn into a dinking, dunking, slapping singles hitter?

Brett had an idea. General manager Dayton Moore did, too. So after Moore finally convinced Brett to take the hitting-coach job with Pedro Grifol as his assistant, he didn’t say anything about the swing or the leg kick or the arms.

“Rescue us mentally,” Moore told Brett.

Four months later, Hosmer is carrying a playoff contender. Those long arms are extended, both literally and figuratively. The groove is back. Rolled-over grounders to second base are now line drives into the seats.

A young man struggling to find his way has become one of the American League’s better hitters. He has 17 hits, including four for extra bases, in his last 11 games through Friday as the Royals play their most important stretch in a generation. All that talent scouts had talked about is showing itself in the big leagues.

How did we get here?

“Confidence,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “It’s just amazing what happens when a talented young hitter finds confidence.”

Maybe the problem is that Hosmer made it look so darned easy. They said he was a natural out of high school, something like an Adrian Gonzalez clone, except with more power. One game, scouts watched Hosmer make four outs — all on rocket line drives, at least in one man’s memory — which made him so angry he finished the ninth inning as the closer, throwing 95-mph fastballs.

He had one bad year in the minor leagues, but he played part of that season with a broken thumb and a bigger chunk of it with eyes that needed Lasik surgery. Once they fixed his vision, Hosmer made a mockery of minor-league pitching. The Royals wanted to keep him down longer, but the guy was hitting .439 in the Pacific Coast League. What more did he need to prove?

He debuted in front of more than 30,000 fans at Kauffman Stadium, and when he drew a walk in his first major-league at-bat, against Gio Gonzalez, you had the feeling this was a different kind of guy. Two days later Hosmer had two hits and his first RBI. Three days after that, his first homer — at Yankee Stadium. The day after that,


homer, and three more hits.

He finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Most anything seemed possible.

Most anything except what came next.

Hosmer was so bad last season that, basically, the hitting coach got fired for it — and justifiably so. Hosmer hit .232, often appearing lost, the people around him making excuses about it being early in the season even when it wasn’t so early in the season anymore.

The Royals brought in two new hitting coaches in the offseason, but Hosmer was only marginally better. The Royals had him in the middle of their order based on spec and scouting hope, but by late May he was hitting .262 and averaging one extra-base hit per week.

That’s when the Royals fired those new hitting coaches, Moore eventually wearing Brett down enough to take the job with Grifol and be Hosmer’s emotional life raft. Officially, Brett was the hitting coach. Really, he was more like a swag coach.

Brett talks a lot about having fun, at virtually any cost. Once when he was playing, in the middle of an awful slump and a brutal July day in Baltimore, Brett decided he’d go a day without any water. Screw it. Why not? He played that day as hard as he could. He’d sprint to his position, sprint back. Once, he walked over to the water bucket, filled a cup with ice-cold refreshment, and slammed it down on the ground, telling a teammate:

I don’t need this (stuff).

Brett looks back on it now and knows it was dumb. Truth is, he has no idea if he even got a hit that day. But he knows he had fun, knows he played a game without thinking about how bad he was hitting, and that was the point.

Neither student nor teacher will get into specifics about what they worked on, or what they talked about, but everyone in the clubhouse and even throughout the organization can see a difference with Hosmer.

He just looks different

, you’ll hear many of them say.

Brett walked away from the full-time coaching job last month, but Hosmer talks about a more focused approach and mentality. Grifol — the sweat behind the coaching change even when Brett was there — works every day with drills and routines for Hosmer.

In 2012 and the first two months of this season, Hosmer hit a combined .239 with the power of a motorized grocery cart.

In 103 games since the coaching change (entering Saturday), Hosmer is hitting .321 with 39 extra-base hits. Basically, he’s been Adrian Beltre or Robinson Cano the last 3 1/2 months. Hosmer has more multihit games than anyone in the American League. His home run against Hector Santiago (a lefty) into the fountains in June is the longest of any Royals hitter this season.

And if Hosmer has been rescued mentally, he’s helped do the same for a franchise and fan base.

Hosmer’s rise is a near identical mirror to the team around him. At his lowest point, in late May, the Royals were finishing a stretch of 19 losses in 23 games. Nobody had answers. Yost talked about the third-baseman tree, fans screamed about his job. Moore’s, too.

And the truth is, if the last 3 1/2 months played anything like the first two months, well, the Royals probably would have a different power structure soon.

But as Hosmer’s confidence and production has risen, the team around him has done the same. The Royals started 21-29 and are 60-43 since going into Saturday. Talk about firing folks has turned into talk about the playoffs, even as that’s a statistical long shot after the early struggles.

The point is that the Royals are a different team now. This is the best they’ve been since before the strike in 1994, forcing fans in Kansas City to divide their attention with the Chiefs during football season for the first time in a decade.

Hosmer is far from the only reason, of course. Defense is the team’s biggest strength. Mike Moustakas has also benefited from the coaching change. The starting pitching has been good, and the bullpen great. The Royals are winning close games.

But no player mirrors the team’s bigger struggles and successes more accurately than Hosmer. No player better symbolizes the despair of May to the hope of now.

Find Hosmer. Tell him what his manager said, about success following confidence, about the biggest difference being that he now steps into the batters’ box and feels like he truly belongs. Hosmer nods.

“I definitely feel a lot more confident,” he says. “Pedro and I have been working real hard in the cage, and I’ve been sticking to the routine he’s created since he came over. I’m getting up to the plate with a plan, and it’s really working out for me right now.”

That last part you could say about the entire team.

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