The best hitter on the Royals in 2014 kept his eyes trained on his feet as he pondered his offensive potential.
“I think I still have a long way to go,” Lorenzo Cain said. “I’m still learning. I’m still trying to grow as a hitter.”
His team will settle for what he’s done so far this year. After a three-hit, four-RBI feat, which powered his club in a 6-1 victory over Toronto on Friday, Cain cemented his place at the top of his team’s offensive heap. He leads the club in batting average (.339), on-base percentage (.388) and slugging percentage (.441).
Cain starred on a night ripped from the team’s preseason playbook. When the Royals front office forecast their best hopes for 2014, when they charted their prospective foray into October baseball for the first time since 1985, they banked on the probability of victories like this one.
Jason Vargas, 5-2, 3.39 ERA, tamed Toronto for six innings. The bullpen rendered the final nine outs academic. The defense was sleek and impenetrable. And the offense, on the second day of the Dale Sveum Era, blended a touch of speed with a healthy dose of power.
“This is more of the offense that we envisioned coming out of spring training,” manager Ned Yost said. “We’re not going to be a club that leads the league in home runs. But we’ve got home run power.”
Cain and Alex Gordon each launched two-run shots. Billy Butler scored three runs. In turn, the Royals, 26-28, clawed closer to a .500 record, and away from the unsightly play that engulfed them earlier this week.
Through the season’s two first months, the ideal has been a rarity. The Royals skittered into Rogers Centre on Thursday, demoted their hitting coach and waited for a turnaround. They got their wish. At the very least, they will split this four-game series a club that entered on a nine-game winning streak and at the top of the American League East.
The Blue Jays battered James Shields on Thursday. Vargas avoided a similar fate. He scattered seven hits and issued three walks, yet avoided calamity. Yost credited him with pounding the opposition inside, and preventing them from extending their hands to exploit their terrific power.
“You have to do that against lineups that have a bunch of guys that can drive the ball out of the ballpark,” Vargas said.
Save for a solo home run by Jose Bautista, Vargas emerged unscathed. Bautista’s blow fell in the sixth. By then, the Royals already had three runs.
Their first came in the second: Butler singled, Gordon walked and Cain lined a single to right. In fourth, after another hit by Butler, Gordon saw a high, 3-2 fastball from Toronto starter J.A. Happ.
A day earlier, Sveum stressed his goal as the team’s newest hitting coach was to improve the team’s results against pitching up in the strike zone. This result pleased him. Gordon unloaded for his fourth homer of the season.
“We swung the bats well,” Butler said.
Cain come through once again in the sixth. He threaded a single up the middle to score Gordon. But it was the eighth inning that portended the most for the Royals.
Before this season, Cain’s highest on-base plus slugging percentage in the majors was a mediocre .734 mark in 2012. Team officials attributed his lackluster hitting to a series of factors, from his continuous battle with leg injuries to limited background in the game as a teenager.
“He’s still growing as a hitter,” Yost said. “I think he’s got more power in his bat. He exhibited that tonight.”
The fuse was a 94-mph fastball from Happ. The pitch burrowed inside and thigh-high. Cain crushed it over the wall in center field.
He has never hit more than seven home runs in a season. But thus far, Cain has shown his past may not predict his offensive future.
“Right now, I feel great,” Cain said. “So hopefully it just lasts the rest of the season.”