Maybe the statement streamed out because of the jolt to Billy Butler’s system from being doused in ice water.
Could be that it was just the adrenaline crossing wires from his breakthrough performance in a pivotal game, a 5-2 Royals win over Detroit on Sunday at Kauffman Stadium.
Or perhaps it represented a Freudian slip on multiple levels.
“We plan on being back here next year,” Butler said over the stadium public-address system after the game, instantly catching himself and adding what he’d meant to say: “Next week, guys.”
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Then he laughed at himself and said, “Next week. And next year.”
You might forgive the goofy but innocent gaffe for any number of reasons.
After all, the longest-tenured current Royal may well be in his last season here because of the combination of a hefty contract to be resolved (a $12.5 million team option that seems like a reach to be picked up) and diminishing numbers this season.
It would only be natural that he couldn’t cordon off a thought that he may have played his last home game with the only team he’s known.
The fact he sidestepped questions about that after the game only seemed to reinforce that.
If the human side of it doesn’t appeal enough, there’s a practical reason to cut him some slack.
If the Royals indeed are going to be back next week for a playoff game or series, they almost certainly need Butler to be a factor that he hadn’t been for weeks until Sunday.
Since the last days of his stellar August, when he was a catalyst in the Royals’ 19-9 run, Butler had been just three for 37 and been relegated to part-time status.
Entering the Royals’ final stand against Detroit, a single game but one that would determine whether they went into the final week down 1 1/2 games or 3 1/2 games in the American League Central race, Butler had started just nine of 18 September games.
This was complicated stuff for a guy who played in 162 games last season and between 158 and 161 the four seasons before, and essentially is a career .300 hitter.
He wasn’t hitting well, but he wasn’t going to hit better, or find a rhythm, by not playing or playing occasionally.
He has the capacity to be a difference-maker that the Royals lack … but wasn’t producing.
This is what you call a quandary, especially when there’s no way to know if Butler will cut loose with more at-bats, sputter or spiral.
But time is evaporating in the Royals’ pursuit of their first postseason play since 1985.
And manager Ned Yost, who seems to have less patience with Butler than with others, may now see that Butler’s upside trumps the upside of other options.
Certainly, Yost sounded that tone after Butler went two for four with an RBI and enabled another run scored by pinch-runner Terrance Gore.
“That first hit that Billy got in the first inning was huge for us, to break the ice right there,” said Yost, who dismissed Butler’s two outs as simply not “Billy Butleresque-type-at-bats,” and added, “It was a good day for Billy, and I plan on using him just about every game from here on out.”
That first hit, which brought home Lorenzo Cain to make it 1-0, resonated beyond Yost. It evoked a standing ovation for Butler.
For that matter, the crowd was cranked for Butler when he came to the plate with the bases loaded in the fourth.
He struck out, but he absorbed the fan faith in the stadium (even as he generally remains a virtual piñata in the Twitter-sphere).
“I appreciate that, and (fan encouragement) helps me,” he said. “The season hasn’t been the way I wanted it to be, but I’ve got a chance to help this team down the stretch to do something special.”
His “chance” might be something mandatory for the Royals.
He’s not Mike Trout, of course, but Good Billy is something the Royals otherwise lack.
“If that guy gets going, he can carry this ballclub to wherever we want to be,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “Once he gets going, it’s almost unstoppable.
“He’s one of the best hitters I’ve ever played with, and being able to see him get that hit today was huge.”
Where it’s been, and whether it’s going to stay, are elusive questions. From Yost’s perspective, though, it looks something like this:
“You know, Billy’s a guy who really knows his swing. He knows his body. He can feel his hands. He can feel his feet. He knows what his head’s doing.
“And when he gets in trouble, or when he’s gotten in trouble this year, he’s kind of lost that feeling. He doesn’t know where his hands are. He doesn’t know where his feet are.
“Which results in maybe a little bit of a loss in confidence.”
Now Butler will tell you over and over again he never struggles with confidence … though he smiled and noted that he sometimes has to work to fool himself.
He also insists that this is his time.
“I was born to be a competitor,” he said, later adding, “That’s the one thing that separates good players from the others: their ability to compete. Their competitive edge is second to none.”
This scene, on the cusp of a playoff at last, “is what you work your whole career for.”
As for the rejuvenating moment for the Royals on Sunday, Butler said there weren’t enough exclamation points “to put on how exciting that was today and how it’s been.
“It was a playoff atmosphere. I can only imagine if and when we get to the playoffs how exciting they’re going to be. I couldn’t imagine it being more exciting than today, but it’s going to be.”
If that’s what’s to be, if next week is going to matter, believe Butler has to be in the thick of it for the Royals to optimize the opportunity.
As for solving next year?
Well, maybe the next week or so will introduce some meaningful final evidence that ultimately ties the two matters together after all.