The sight of Toronto ace David Price can turn the best left-handed hitters in the world to jelly-legged chum. The arsenal of Price — all cantilever windup and baffling pitch sequences and disappearing changeup — can be devastating. His front leg jerks in the air, his left arm whips and the ball appears to come from nowhere. An 86 mile per hour changeup looks the same as a 96 mile per hour fastball. And on an afternoon like Saturday, when the shadows are creeping and Price is dealing, you just never know.
“You can’t guess what he’s going to throw,” said Royals second baseman Ben Zobrist, who spent seven seasons playing behind Price in Tampa Bay.
As Mike Moustakas strode to the plate in the seventh inning Saturday he understood this Price maxim better than most. In nine career at-bats against Price — including two earlier in the day — he had collected one hit and struck out three times. Mired in an 0-for-13 skid, Moustakas dug in with a runner on second base and the Royals trailing by a single run in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
There could be no guessing, only reacting, and after fighting off an onslaught of four straight fastballs, Moustakas’s eyes read changeup, fading toward the outer half of the plate. He didn’t miss.
Moustakas rapped a sharp single to right field, scoring Eric Hosmer from second base — thanks to a wise send from third base coach Mike Jirschele — and sending another message in the Royals’ 6-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. No team in baseball plays better with blood in its mouth than the die-hard Royals, who overcame a 3-0 deficit to take a 2-0 series lead. No hitter can survive a slump quite like Moustakas, who busted out for two hits, two RBIs and a run scored after beginning the postseason in a prolonged funk.
“We never give up,” Moustakas said. “We never stop fighting. And we always think that, no matter how many innings are left, as long as we have some outs left, we’re going to find a way to win.”
When Saturday began, Moustakas was batting just .090 (two for 22) this postseason with four strikeouts. Sure enough, the skid included bouts of poor luck — Moustakas hit two balls hard in the series opener against Houston and he, himself, believed he was putting together strong at-bats. Still, he had little to show for his efforts. His last home run came nearly three weeks ago, on Sept. 30 at Chicago. His production had waned, even as his presence loomed large.
Five days before, in the Royals’ absurd comeback against the Astros in Game 4 of the ALDS, Moustakas was the one in the dugout, barking out the same message: “We’re not losing this game.” It was a seminal moment of this playoff run, but if you studied the box score close enough, you remembered that Moustakas was the one that struck out amidst that cannon-fire of singles.
“I haven’t been getting a lot of hits,” Moustakas said on Saturday evening, standing in a jubilant clubhouse. “But I’ve been putting together good at-bats. That keeps me going.”
His moment arrived on Saturday. After conquering Price during a furious seventh-inning rally, Moustakas turned on a fastball from reliever Aaron Loup in the bottom of the eighth, adding an insurance run to the ledger.
“It’s so professional,” Zobrist said. “A great hitter is able to make an adjustment when it counts.”
A year ago, of course, there are those that might have blanched at the idea of slapping Moustakas with the title of professional hitter, the highest of baseball compliments. Before the magic of last October, the numbers didn’t lie: Moustakas was the struggling third baseman who had batted .212 in his fourth season, the former top prospect who had suffered the slings of a demotion to Class AAA Omaha at the age of 25.
The 2014 postseason would serve as Moustakas’ proving ground. There was a barrage of homers and a sparkling defensive catch during the ALCS, carrying the Royals to the World Series. But when the offseason came around, he was not satisfied. He set out to better himself, revamping his pull-heavy swing with Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum. For three seasons, a growing number of defensive shifts had bedeviled him, stealing his hits and siphoning away batting average points. He knew he had to change.
“I didn’t want to hit .212 again and go back to Triple-A,” Moustakas said.
On late Saturday, in the moments after another comeback victory, Moustakas wore a camo sweatshirt and a pair of basketball shorts. An hour earlier, he said, he had dug in against Price and thought opposite field. He had stayed back as Price unspooled an 86 mile per hour changeup, and he put enough barrel on the ball, guiding it to right field.
The baseball would fall in. Moustakas had his second hit against Price. And the Royals had their second victory in this ALCS.
“I kept my same approach,” Moustakas said. “And tried to hit the ball the other way.”