The career of Jason Vargas stabilized inside the roomy confines of Safeco Field, the site of a 6-1 Royals victory on Friday. Don Wakamatsu was an eyewitness to the transformation. He managed the Mariners in 2009, when Vargas was a shaky swingman, and again in 2010, when Vargas established himself as a reliable starting pitcher.
The progression occurred as Vargas tailored his arsenal to his surroundings. “I think he learned to trust the ballpark,” said Wakamatsu, now the Royals’ bench coach, one day in spring training. “He learned how to pitch inside that park.”
The Royals (17-18) benefited from their relationship on Friday night. Vargas (3-1, 3.04 ERA) spun seven scoreless innings. His old club managed a measly trio of singles. A Mariner never graced third base. Vargas redeemed himself after allowing 12 runs in his previous two games.
“What pitchers like Vargy do so well is they disrupt the opposition’s timing,” manager Ned Yost said. “And he did that extremely well today.”
Vargas presented a mirror image of the Mariners’ starter on Thursday. A night after Hisashi Iwakuma caused the Kansas City offense to vanish, the Royals benefited on Friday from 16 singles, a series of productive outs and a few fielding errors by their hosts. The output marked the fourth time in franchise history the team accumulated that many hits without an extra-base hit, and served as a welcome sight after the previous game’s desolation
Within the context of 2014, in which the heightened expectations creates a cauldron of pressure, each loss feels like a referendum on this organization’s trajectory. A defeat incites outrage. Fans often demand answers and evidence of accountability, the sort of outburst that is difficult to discern during the increments of the lengthy season.
As an organization, the Royals refrain from public critiques of their players. Thus even as Mike Moustakas’ batting average continues to languish, general manager Dayton Moore searches for positives. He cited Moustakas’ defense, his team-best total of four home runs and a few recent RBI. Moustakas, he explained, still helps the club bank victories.
“We’ve got to put the best lineup we can on the field, based on the players we think can help us win each and every night,” Moore said, before shifting gears and drifting into an exaggeration that offered an insight into the team’s worldview.
“Tonight’s the most important game in the history of the Kansas City Royals,” he said. “It’s what we do. Every game is the most important one.”
The hyperbole did not appear to affect the clubhouse. A loose atmosphere permeates the room. Salvador Perez wheeled Jarrod Dyson in a laundry bin. Billy Butler groused when his beloved Redskins traded their second-round draft pick. Vargas ambled through the clubhouse, back inside the park he called home for four seasons.
Yost did not worry about a reunion affecting his starter. “That incorporates a lot of emotion, where you get emotional about coming back,” Yost said. “Vargy’s not an emotional type of guy.”
Those who know him joke about whether he possesses a pulse. On the mound, Vargas appears impervious to distraction. But he has not been impervious to opposing lumber in his past few outings.
“When he’s right, he’s surgical,” Yost said. “When he’s not, he’s off just a little bit. He’s behind in the count. And he’ll get an occasional ball up.”
Detroit demolished the latter version of Vargas in his previous start. The Tigers pounded 11 hits, two home runs and seven runs in five innings. It was the lowest moment of Vargas’ season. His rebound in his former park was swift.
The difference, he said, was “just being to control the count, being able to make a few pitches down in the strike zone.”
He took the mound with a lead, one that would only grow. After singles by Nori Aoki and Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler plated a run when former Royal Willie Bloomquist botched a double-play attempt. Hosmer lofted a sacrifice fly to score Alcides Escobar in the second. And two more unearned runs scored in the fourth when Mariners shortstop Brad Miller fired a throw into the outfield. Called up that morning, second baseman Johnny Giavotella beat out a double-play ball to create a sixth-inning run.
Vargas experienced one jam the entire evening. The situation arose in the seventh. Robinson Cano laced a single and Vargas hit Corey Hart with a fastball. The slumbering crowd at Safeco Field stirred.
Vargas would not give them a reason to cheer. The inning ended seven pitches later, after two flyouts and a harmless ground ball. In his homecoming, Vargas defused danger with a shrug.
“Vargy does what Vargy does,” Hosmer said. “He was throwing strikes constantly, working fast. He knows exactly what his game plan is on the mound every time.”