Alcides Escobar watched the baseball disappear into the glare and waited for an opportunity. He calls the shortstop position at Kauffman Stadium home, and he understands how the sun obscures a fielder’s vision.
His interest was keen as Indians shortstop Mike Aviles ranged into the left field on Wednesday afternoon, midway through the third inning of a 4-1 Royals victory against the Cleveland Indians.
Omar Infante had just lifted the ball skyward, and a rally appeared on the verge of waning. Upon contact, Infante hung his head. In the on-deck circle, Eric Hosmer lamented “Man, we just popped out.” Escobar was less certain: He held his place on the bag at third.
“He lost the ball for like one moment,” Escobar said. “And I’m thinking I can go.”
His instincts were correct. Aviles tumbled into the grass. Escobar sprinted home. Seated on his backside, Aviles uncorked a soft toss back to the diamond, where starter Trevor Bauer promptly threw the ball away.
Inside the batting cage, Royals speedster Jarrod Dyson heard the commotion as Escobar crossed the plate and returned to the dugout. Dyson joined a procession of teammates saluting Escobar. The players commended him for his daring, part of a starring performance that prompted manager Ned Yost to say “he’s taken his game to the next level.”
How, they asked, did you do that?
“I play hard,” Escobar told them in one of his best games of the season, a three-for-three outing with an RBI. “I’m running hard, all the time.”
The sequence provided the deciding run for the Royals, 33-32, who received an efficient start from Yordano Ventura, survived a hairy eighth inning from Wade Davis and vaulted back above .500 for the first time since May 18. To do so, in the second segment of a two-game sweep of their division rivals, they made history. The Royals became the first team to score four runs, all on sacrifice flies, in a victory since the statistic began being recorded in 1954.
The result delighted Yost, who has ignored criticism of his lineup construction in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the group delivered its first three-homer game of the season. The diversification of Wednesday’s attack heartened him just as much.
“What you saw today was some tremendous situational hitting,” he said.
A day off on Thursday beckons, and the team can rest well, knowing they’ve answered the bell after a late May stumble. Since May 28, when the Astros completed a three-game pounding here, the Royals have won nine of their last 13 games. They venture to Chicago and Detroit for a seven-game trip starting Friday.
“I like where we’re sitting at,” said designated hitter Billy Butler, who provided the day’s fourth RBI. “I like the direction our club is going.”
The afternoon featured two of baseball’s brightest young starters. Ventura, who improved to 4-5, made his second start as a 23-year-old, and breezed through seven innings of one-run baseball. His counterpart is the same age. Bauer, the No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft, has just begun to establish himself in the majors.
His arsenal can devastate. He mixes a mid-90s fastball with two types of breaking pitches. In his first five outings this season, he fanned 35 batters in 282/3 innings.
Mike Moustakas erased Bauer’s momentum in the third inning. He bashed a leadoff double off the wall, and took third on Escobar’s single. Dyson plated him the first sacrifice fly. A single by Nori Aoki put Escobar in place for his show-stealing maneuver.
Escobar added a sacrifice fly of his own in fourth. Butler capped the scoring in the seventh.
“To be honest with you, Bauer was pitching pretty well,” Butler said. “Every opportunity that we had, which wasn’t a tremendous amount, we capitalized on.”
Ventura required a mere 85 pitches to get into the eighth inning. But Yost did not consider sending him back out. Instead, he opened the door to his bullpen and his hellacious duo of Davis and Greg Holland.
Davis indicated earlier this week he had recently conquered a case of dead arm. On Wednesday, he found himself agitated by the presence of Michael Bourn on first base. After a leadoff single, he accelerated his delivery, which robbed him of his command. Davis loaded the bases with a walk and a single.
Pitching coach Dave Eiland jogged to the mound to remind Davis to slow himself down. The results were immediate. Davis locked up Jason Kipnis with a backdoor cutter. Carlos Santana couldn’t touch a 97-mph fastball. Davis pocketed the third out on a slow roller to second base.
“You’d much rather get out of somebody else’s situation, not a self-induced one,” Davis said. “But that was good to get out of it.”
Holland entered for the ninth. The ending offered some symmetry. Holland bowled over his opponents en route to his 19th save of the season. Aviles made the game’s final out. He popped a fastball into shallow left field.
Alcides Escobar settled underneath. He knows, of course, how to handle the sun in that spot.