The pitch that injured Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer connected with his right hand on July 20 in Boston, and induced a spate of swelling around the area. That swelling, according to Hosmer, camouflaged the underlying damage, a non-displaced stress fracture of the third metacarpal, a vexing result that could sideline him up to six weeks.
The diagnosis arrived via an X-ray on Thursday night, robbing the club of a Gold Glove defender and one of their best hitters in July. Hosmer departed in the sixth inning of a 6-3 victory over Minneapolis. He may not return until September.
Hosmer tabbed a three-week layoff as his best-case scenario. At his locker after the game, he looked ashen-faced.
“Bad timing,” Hosmer said. “It’s frustrating. But the positive side is you’ve got to realize you can still get back for that last month.”
Hosmer underwent an X-ray after the initial injury at Fenway Park. The examination revealed no fracture. This time, the result was different.
The reason for the concern felt familiar. Hosmer aggravated his hand on a check-swing in his second at-bat. The strength in his hand disappeared, and he could no longer control the lumber.
“I would try and stop, and there was no resistance,” Hosmer said. “The resistance, it would just shut down on me. There was nothing we could do about it.”
He had suffered a similar recurrence on July 23 in Chicago, when the training staff cleared him to play and Hosmer convinced manager Ned Yost he could handle the strain.
Hosmer subsequently lost strength in his hand. He sat out all of last weekend’s series against Cleveland. On Thursday, the Royals flew to Oakland with their franchise first baseman on the mend.
Billy Butler will play first base on Friday, Yost said. From there, “we’ll mix and match,” he said. Butler could split time with Raul Ibanez. Yost indicated the club may not make a roster move until Saturday, due to Thursday’s late departure for the West Coast and the need to add starter Jason Vargas to the roster for Saturday’s game.
Butler, of course, welcomes the challenge of handling first base again. He believes it is easier for him to remain within the flow of the game when he has to play defense.
“I played first before Hoz came up,” Butler said. “Hoz is a Gold Glover. I’m not. So I’ve just got to do the best I can to fill in. When he was out earlier this week, we won some games. I think that’s the main goal. If we can keep going with him, then I did a good job.”
In the first two weeks of July, Hosmer appeared to resurrect his season. He mashed 24 hits in 56 at-bats and punched up a 1.135 on-base plus slugging percentage.
“He was hot,” Yost said. “Any time you lose a player of his caliber, it hurts.”
But, he added, “I like our team. I think we’ll be able to overcome it.”
Vargas set to start
After missing three starts following his appendectomy July 9, Royals left-hander Jason Vargas is set to make his return to the starting rotation Saturday. He will take the mound against the Oakland Athletics and Jon Lester, who was acquired Thursday through a trade with Boston for Yoenis Cespedes.
Vargas threw four 15-pitch innings in a simulated game Tuesday, which made manager Ned Yost confident that Vargas could return for his next start with an extended pitch limit.
“He feels good,” Yost said. “We’ll probably take him to 85 or 90 pitches. He got to 60 in his last outing and feels strong and wasn’t tired at all.”
Vargas is 8-4 in 19 starts with a 3.31 ERA. Opponents are batting .259 against him and the Royals have a 10-9 record with Vargas on the mound.
Fellow left-hander Bruce Chen has filled in during Vargas’ absence with a 1-1 record in three starts. He has a 2-3 record with a 6.42 ERA in nine appearances — seven starts — for Kansas City this season.