He cradled the baseball in his prized left hand, gazed at it for a moment, and then tossed the ball away. Jason Vargas is the sort who executes a slick fielding play, as he did by snaring a line drive in the first inning of a 4-0 Royals victory on Wednesday, discards the evidence and advances without sentiment.
His friends joke he lacks a pulse. The other day, he sat down with his barber and offered minimal instructions. “I just told him I didn’t want long hair anymore,” Vargas said. He emerged with a sleek, high-and-tight cut, a hairdo that drew expletive-laden raves from his teammates upon his arrival in the visitors clubhouse at Target Field on Monday.
His performance on Wednesday afternoon engendered a similar reaction. For seven innings he stymied the Twins, limited his opponents to a meager quartet of singles and collected five strikeouts. Minnesota could not advance a runner past second base. A day after James Shields wilted, Vargas (8-3, 3.32 ERA) reminded why he has become this club’s workhorse.
“I thought he was splendid,” said manager Ned Yost, who struggled to remember if Vargas even faced something resembling a jam during the game.
“He really knows his game plan when he’s out there,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “He fires strikes and lets his defense work.”
“Every pitch has a purpose,” new addition Raul Ibanez said. “And he’s not giving anything for free. It’s a lot of fun to play behind him.
Ibanez and Hosmer keyed the brief offensive flurries of the Royals (44-40). Hosmer walked three times and roped an RBI single in the ninth inning. Ibanez smacked a solo shot in the eighth. The blast marked his first homer in a Royals uniform since Sept. 22, 2003.
At 42 years and 31 days, Ibanez became the oldest Royal ever to hit a home run. Still, in his first series back with Kansas City, he flashed signs of life. He collected two hits on Wednesday and scored a pair of runs. The production must please Royals officials, who inked Ibanez to add a veteran presence to a youthful clubhouse and supply extra-base power. As a former Royal, Ibanez understands the historic import of this club’s potential.
“I’m here because I want to be here — not because I have to be here,” Ibanez said. “I had other opportunities. But I thought this would be the most rewarding opportunity, because of the significance of what it would mean to the city and to the franchise if this team does what it’s capable of doing.”
That fate has not yet been decided. But the team did create some momentum heading into a day off in Cleveland on Thursday. They completed the first leg of a nine-game trip with a series victory.
At present, the offense lacks the sizzle of last month’s 10-game winning streak. But they provided enough sustenance on Wednesday. The Royals put together a two-run rally in the second inning. Mike Moustakas and Jarrod Dyson contributed RBI singles off Twins starter Kevin Correia.
Hosmer coaxed his second walk of the day to load the bases. Correia managed to strike out Billy Butler, who managed just one hit in 14 at-bats during this series.
“Really had a chance to crack it open there, bases loaded,” Yost said. “Didn’t do it.”
Vargas rendered the missed opportunity meaningless. He returned to action after one of his weakest outings as a Royal. Last week at Kauffman Stadium, his former Angels teammates hounded him for six runs in four frames.
He resembled the more precise version of himself, the player who looks like a $32 million bargain, on Wednesday. He picked up eight outs on grounders by flooding the lower half of the zone with strikes. Yost praised his fastball command as Vargas issued just two walks. His defenders raved about his efficiency.
“I was able to keep the ball down early,” Vargas said. “That helped me later when I was able to elevate with a few and miss with a couple other pitches.”
His pace was brisk. The Twins required four innings to place a man on second base. Vargas escaped without trouble, inducing Trevor Plouffe to hit into a force play at second with runners at first and second. When Sam Fuld stole second with two outs in the fifth, Vargas responded in similar fashion. He attacked Brian Dozier to pick up another groundout.
Vargas prevented emergencies from arising. There was little reason for the Royals to fret. For a pitcher who keeps his keel even, Wednesday was a minor-key masterpiece.
“Just a good rhythm and tempo out there,” Vargas said. “We had a good thing going.”