The routine is the same every night. The Royals can win big or lose hard but Dayton Moore makes the same journey from his box on the fourth floor to the trainers’ room on the first floor at Kauffman Stadium and asks the same questions.
How’s the starting pitcher feel?
How’s Salvy holding up?
And not always in that order. If the Royals end up in the playoffs, Alex Gordon will be the one on some AL MVP ballots and that’s entirely understandable. In today’s baseball, Gordon’s defensive genius and subtle greatness is more easily measured and appreciated. Someone from the Royals would have to show up on some ballots, and Gordon would make for a fine choice.
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But if you polled the organization — players, coaches, scouts, everyone in baseball operations — there’s a good chance that Sal Perez would win the vote for team MVP.
The Royals’ playoff run took a happy turn on Monday night, a 4-3 win over the sorry Rangers that maintains a half-game lead over the Tigers and at least momentarily sprays down what had been a growing concern about the team after three straight losses (four if you count the suspended game from Sunday night).
With Moore’s postgame ritual in mind, it’s worth noting two things. First, as he talked with reporters, Perez had ice around both his right shoulder and right knee (the one he tweaked a few weeks ago). Second, he says he feels great physically.
“I keep my body moving and I’m ready for the last (26) games we have left,” Perez says. “I’m playing as hard as I did the first day.”
There are many reasons the Royals stopped their losing streak on Monday. Yordano Ventura was occasionally erratic but overall effective in his return after a skipped start last week. Carlos Peguero debuted with a line drive double and a grown man play that kept Adrian Beltre to a single off the wall. And so on.
But as much as anything else, this was a night to be reminded about Perez’s gifts, and the special value he holds for the Royals.
He is one of the rarest forms of a baseball player — young and established, a friendly star, the clubhouse bridge between Americans and Spanish speakers, a defensive force at a premium position with enough pop to hit in the middle of the lineup.
And if the Royals make the playoffs, you don’t think the network cameras are going to lock in on Perez’s big smile and belly laugh?
On Monday, he drove a double to the wall that scored Gordon and gave the Royals the lead in the first. Then in the third, he hit a fastball into the Royals’ bullpen for a two-run homer. He also led off the eighth with a single. His night was not perfect — he couldn’t block a wild pitch from Ventura that led to a run in the sixth — but it was one more in a long line of games that the Royals probably wouldn’t win without him.
There’s a reason that one of Ned Yost’s daily battles is the balance between giving Perez enough rest, but also using his most irreplaceable player.
Perez has been a streaky hitter in his career, and now would be a spectacular time for him to be on one of his good streaks. Especially as they sort out how to work Eric Hosmer back in — a suggestion, if Josh Willingham is healthy: he DHs and Billy Butler plays first against lefties; Hosmer plays first and Butler DHs against righties — the Royals need all the hitting they can get.
Of course, it’s more than just offense with Perez. The Royals rely on Perez to make guys like Peguero feel comfortable in the big leagues, and guys like Ventura and Danny Duffy comfortable on the mound. If you ask around the organization about why they feel confident bringing left-handed pitcher Brandon Finnegan to the big leagues, chances are they’ll mention Perez’s influence.
So far in his career, Perez is something like a really good hole-in-the-wall restaurant — adored by locals and industry insiders, but mostly anonymous to the larger mainstream audience.
Even with two All-Star appearances, he’s been hidden, somewhat, by both his lack of eye-popping stats and the Royals’ low national profile. Nationally, when people think of the Royals they’re likely to think of Gordon, Shields, Hosmer and Butler before Perez.
It’s fitting, then, that as Perez is one of the biggest keys in possibly dragging the Royals back to the playoffs after 29 years, he also stands to be among the biggest beneficiaries of the team’s attention.