The entire thing was about getting a change-up. That’s Brad Boxberger’s best pitch, and Paulo Orlando knew this, so he fixated on it with the sole purpose of hitting a fly ball to the outfield.
The score was tied. Bottom of the ninth. Bases loaded. The kind of situation little boys daydream in backyards every day. A sacrifice fly will win the game.
“I just think about doing my job, you know?” said Orlando, the Royals’ rookie outfielder.
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Orlando has a short swing. That’s something the Royals wanted him to work on after they acquired him in a trade seven years ago. His aptitude with it is part of why he impressed them immediately, and part of why he is playing in the big leagues this year for the first time.
When bat hit ball, manager Ned Yost knew immediately the Royals had more than the sacrifice fly.
“Oh yeah,” he said, chuckling.
And when the ball cleared the bullpen fence, a walk-off grand slam that gave the Royals a 9-5 win in the first game of a split doubleheader on Tuesday, the players who’ve been around long enough couldn’t help but think of Justin Maxwell’s walk-off grand slam in the fall of 2013.
“Yeah, yeah, same exact thing,” Salvador Perez said. “Same place, same thing that happened. Game over.”
The best moment of Orlando’s baseball life so far puts a spotlight on a problem the Royals need to solve.
Alex Rios, playing on a one-year $11 million contract, had two hits, including an infield single, and a walk in the first game before sitting the second. He also stole a base and hit into a double play. He is now hitting .227 with a .255 on-base and .270 slugging percentage, numbers that make him the least productive regular outfielder in the American League.
Teams with championship aspirations are not content with such holes in the lineup, particularly a corner outfield spot. The Royals have a similar issue at second base, where Omar Infante is hitting .235/.246/.310.
The Royals have the assets to make a trade, but the cost to acquire a proven and productive big leaguer — someone like, say, Justin Upton or Ben Zobrist — is high. A trade package would likely have to include Danny Duffy or top prospect Raul Mondesi, and that’s just the beginning. Teams would also be asking about Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera and others.
Under general manager Dayton Moore, the Royals have been reluctant to make splashy moves like this. A year ago, they tried to make several midlevel trades at the deadline but balked when asked to trade away big leaguers. The Royals have typically been insistent on maintaining their strengths, and of not weakening one part of their big league roster to address a problem somewhere else.
That they carry a 4 1/2-game lead in the AL Central following a 7-1 victory in the second game of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader will not spark desperation.
All of that means that, if Rios continues to struggle, the most logical and most efficient replacement might be Orlando.
Defensively, Orlando was fine filling in for Lorenzo Cain in center field in the first game on Tuesday, and he covers more ground with superior speed than Rios in right.
Orlando is not nearly as proven, or naturally gifted, as Rios. But he is playing better than Rios — an opinion based not just on Tuesday, but also scouts — and at the very least he gives the Royals an option.
He could be an upgrade defensively, and if Rios is slowed by either that nagging thumb injury or the fractured hand he suffered in April, then the Royals could sell more time for Orlando as a chance for Rios to rest and get healthy.
“(Orlando) got his opportunity today when he played,” Yost said. “He just continues to play. That’s my job, to continue to give him opportunities when they present themselves. He got an opportunity today, with Cain being out, and he took advantage of it.”
Yost said those words after the first game, and Orlando did start in place of Rios in right field in the second game. There is no indication this is a long-term trend, but it is something worth watching.
Orlando is not a panacea. He is a 29-year-old rookie who is hitting .242 with 23 strikeouts. But he might be the Royals’ best option, at least in the short-term.
There aren’t a lot of opportunities for big-league teams to rest a struggling veteran and see if they have an in-house improvement that would allow the front office to focus more attention on other areas.