A new day dawned for Mike Moustakas on Saturday afternoon as he rested up after a seven-hour bus ride.
He had traveled through the night from Oklahoma City to Round Rock, Texas, with his temporary minor-league teammates. The trip began at 1:30 a.m., and upon arrival at their destination Moustakas slumbered to stock up energy for that evening’s Class AAA game.
He never played that day, instead headed on a northbound itinerary crafted after third baseman Danny Valencia aggravated his sore left hand in Saturday’s loss. The injury sent Valencia to the disabled list and accelerated Moustakas’ return to the Royals.
Around 5 p.m., he hopped a series of flights that transported him from Texas into another country and back to the major leagues, ready to start what he called “a second season.” Team officials had instructed him not to dwell on his failings during his first eight weeks of the year.
“Now I’m up here, and I’m hitting .000,” he said before the game. “Go out there, and it’s a new season.”
At 1:35 p.m. local time Sunday, 28 minutes into an eventual 4-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, Moustakas strode from the on-deck circle toward the plate. He crow-hopped as he approached, ripped a practice swing, stomped his left foot in the dirt, stepped back to adjust his gloves and settled into the box.
Toronto starter Mark Buehrle wound up and flipped a change-up. The baseball bisected the plate at Moustakas’ waist. It was the sort of pitch deserving of damage. Moustakas swung through it. He flied out to left on the next offering, the start of an zero-for-three day that felt reminiscent of the season he is trying to forget.
After two weeks of minor-league fodder, Buehrle was a cruel reminder of the difference between Omaha and the game’s highest level. Buehrle is a left-handed maestro. He excels at efficiency, disrupts the timing of his opponents and flabbergasts them without throwing a fastball harder than 85 mph.
In locking up his 10th win this season, Buehrle stymied the Royals for eight innings. He did not allow a runner to reach third base. He rendered meaningless a pair of leadoff doubles.
Manager Ned Yost called him “a master at what he does,” and lamented the team’s inability to capitalize on a seven innings of two-run baseball from Jeremy Guthrie.
“He matched up against the wrong guy,” Yost said.
Added Guthrie, “We’re not the only team that’s been shut down by Mark this year.”
The Royals captured the first two games here at Rogers Centre. Then they fizzled, undone by Aaron Brooks’ meltdown on Saturday and flummoxed by Buehrle on Sunday. To manage merely a split in this series, first baseman Eric Hosmer conceded, was “a missed opportunity.”
It has been a season filled with those, both before and after Moustakas’ departure less than two weeks ago. After hemming and hawing for days, the Royals demoted Moustakas on May 22. General manager Dayton Moore termed it a “reset” for a player overwhelmed by failure.
Moustakas was batting .152, which ranked him tied with Angels veteran Raul Ibañez for last among the 277 players with 100 plate appearances in 2014 heading into Sunday. He lacked the ability to combat inside pitching. His timing was off. In the final days, Yost admitted later, his confidence appeared shot.
“He just needed a break,” Yost said. “He got it.”
Moustakas referred to his minor-league dalliance as “time off.” He hit .355 with a .960 on-base plus slugging percentage in eight games for Omaha. Working with Storm Chasers hitting coach Tommy Gregg, who shepherded him through his torrid final days in the minors years ago, Moustakas sought to unclutter his mind at the plate. He eschewed excessive discussion of mechanics, and focused on pitch recognition.
“I started thinking so much less,” he said. “I felt so much more relaxed at the plate. I saw the ball really well. I felt great.”
The team experienced upheaval in his absence. Moustakas was close with Pedro Grifol; he spent three weeks in Venezuela this winter playing for Grifol’s team, and soaking up his tutelage. With Grifol reassigned to catching instructor, Moustakas huddled with new hitting coach Dale Sveum on Sunday morning.
Sveum cast himself as a mere observer during Moustakas’ first few days back. He wanted to see how his new charge carried himself.
“We all know it starts with confidence,” Sveum said. “Right now, it’s just a matter of him being able to relax, go out there every day, and take the same approach he’s had down there.”
He came up hitless on Sunday. Still, Yost commended his defense and his at-bats. Moustakas lined out in his second at-bat and flied out to right in his third. At the very least, he fit in with a lineup still striving for consistency, and often coming up empty.
“We haven’t been playing our best baseball,” Moustakas said. “There’s so much potential on this team. We’re going to break out of this at some point this year. And it’s going to be a lot of fun to be a part of it, and be able to contribute a little bit.”