The pitch comes in at 88 mph and this is when things happen so quickly. Eric Hosmer is waiting for it, a changeup at the waist, and he strides toward the ball and swings hard and feels that perfect nothingness that ballplayers feel when they hit it just right.
Jose Quintana, the Chicago White Sox pitcher, drops his head just a bit. Hosmer runs toward first base and watches the ball go over the wall. Behind him, his Royals teammates go bonkers, most notably Salvador Perez.
Perez and Hosmer are particularly close, and that’s surely part of it. The Royals would go on beat the White Sox 7-5 at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday, and that success is absolutely part of it.
But so, too, is this idea that style points can matter sometimes. The Royals, let’s face it, are not expected by many to defend their American League championship. This White Sox team bought a lot of national headlines with an offseason spending spree, and then the first two games of this series had turned into a sort of mini-beanball war.
The best response on so many levels for the Royals was power from the bats and bravado from the dugout. So as Hosmer is running around the bases and the fans are standing up and cheering, Perez hops over the dugout railing and punches the air toward the White Sox’s side, adding a hip thrust for show.
“You know,” Perez would say later, “to let them know we have some people in our dugout, too.”
Perez’s exaggerated celebration is part of what these Royals now believe they are about, which is fine, because identities are good but what’s just as important is what he was celebrating.
Hosmer’s homer scored three runs for the Royals. Lorenzo Cain’s, a blast into the seats behind the Royals’ bullpen in left field, scored two more. All of last season, the Royals scored five or more runs on home runs just five times.
We are only two games into the Royals’ encore from last year’s pennant, but so far this is like watching a Honda Civic after it gets a turbocharged engine. The Royals hit far fewer homers than any other team in baseball last year, which became like a theme for them in 2014, at first as the reason they weren’t winning and then as a sort of badge of honor — look at those crafty Royals, always figuring out a way.
The players on this team will be the first to tell you they do not expect to bash their way through the American League, but it’s hard not to notice they have hit two home runs in each game this season.
Yes, small sample size, it’s only two games, blah-blah-blah, but here’s an interesting fact: the Royals hit multiple home runs in consecutive games only four times last year, and never against the big outfield at the K.
So, two games in and the Royals have already done something they didn’t do all of last season. Hosmer, you might remember, didn’t hit his first homer last year until May 5. Cain hit five all season.
Now, again. This team has many strengths, and home-run hitting is not one of them, but what if they can just get to the point where home runs are not a glaring weakness?
Like, instead of finishing dead last and 49 home runs under the league average, what if they finished around 12th in the league with 120 home runs?
Is that so crazy?
“Even last year, when everybody’s making a big deal about of us not hitting home runs,” Royals manager Ned Yost says, “I’m saying, ‘Look, we’ve got guys who are capable of hitting home runs, and if they get in their comfort zone all of a sudden the power’s going to increase.’”
Yost goes on to mention Cain, Perez, Mike Moustakas, Alex Rios, Alex Gordon and Kendrys Morales as players who are capable of hitting 15 to 25 home runs. Given a second to think about it, he would almost certainly add Hosmer to that list.
Yost is famously positive about all of his players, but this is far from outrageous. Other than Cain, each of those players has hit at least 15 home runs in one or both of the last two seasons.
Even as baseball is getting away from a reliance on home runs, and even as the Royals showed last year that there is success to be had without power, there is an understanding within the organization that the offense needs to be significantly better to get back into the playoffs.
This will never be a team that slugs its way through a season, and even as the Royals scored five of their seven runs on home runs Wednesday night they also scored twice on singles and ran two double steals.
“We realize what kind of team we are,” Hosmer says. “We realize what kind of offense we have. We realize it’s not going to be a home run every time.”
And it doesn’t need to be. The Royals’ strength remains in their athleticism in the field, speed on the base paths, and remarkable collection of power arms in the back of the bullpen. But if they can hit for just a little more power, they will shine an even more flattering light on those considerable strengths.
So much of the conversation around this team over the offseason was how they could follow up a postseason run that changed the way baseball is consumed in Kansas City. About whether they would be content with a taste of success, and how they could improve.
The truth is that the starting rotation is diminished without James Shields, and even with more depth in front the back end of the bullpen will be hard-pressed to duplicate last year’s success.
The clearest way for the Royals to match or improve upon last season is with the bats, power in particular. Nobody should make definitive statements after two weeks, let alone two games, but already the Royals have done something they didn’t accomplish all of last season.
They don’t need to hit with a lot of power. Just more power than last year. So far, very good.