Royals

Mired in offensive misery, Royals return to ‘Esky Magic’ — and win

The Royals’ Eric Hosmer slid across the plate for a run as Rays catcher Derek Norris waited for the throw in the fifth inning Monday. Hosmer scored on a single by Salvador Perez in the Royals’ 7-3 win in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The Royals’ Eric Hosmer slid across the plate for a run as Rays catcher Derek Norris waited for the throw in the fifth inning Monday. Hosmer scored on a single by Salvador Perez in the Royals’ 7-3 win in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Associated Press

At some point in the last few days, as the rancid numbers piled up, as the worst offense in baseball searched for … anything, Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum offered an unorthodox solution to manager Ned Yost.

“Dale suggested we just pull a lineup out of a hat,” Yost said Monday, in the hours before a series opener against the Tampa Bay Rays. “But I haven’t got that desperate yet.”

Yost was not ready to turn his batting order over to random chance, but he did the next closest thing, turning toward the comfort of the absurd. As he made out his lineup Monday, he returned Alcides Escobar — the club’s light-hitting shortstop with a .183 batting average — back to the leadoff spot.

The move defied statistical sense and broke modern baseball norms. Even Yost cracked a smile as he discussed the decision before the game. But in the moments after a 7-3 victory over the Rays inside Tropicana Field, the move materialized as a master stroke. What was once known as Esky Magic — the mystical powers of a lineup that punched above its weight class — surfaced again as the Royals opened a four-game road trip with a victory.

“We needed a night like this,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Escobar opened the game with a single and finished with two hits and a run scored. Catcher Drew Butera clubbed a solo homer in the third and finished with two RBIs. Hosmer finished 3 for 5 as the Royals rapped out a season-high 13 hits, striking for four funs in five innings against Rays starter Blake Snell.

The offensive explosion — for this team, this qualified as an explosion — provided a healthy cushion for starting pitcher Nathan Karns, who matched a career high with 10 strikeouts while surrendering two runs in 6  1/3 innings.

The first run came in the bottom of the first, when left fielder Alex Gordon lost a shallow fly ball in the ivory-colored roof of Tropicana Field. The second came in the seventh after he allowed two base runners and exited for reliever Matt Strahm. But for most of the evening, Karns offered glimpses of his dynamic swing-and-miss stuff, utilizing a biting curveball to lower his ERA to 3.63 in six starts.

“My most effective pitch today, for sure,” Karns said.

The victory propelled the Royals to an 11-20 record on the heels of a dispiriting series loss to the Cleveland Indians last weekend. On Sunday, they managed just one hit. Yet they can now say they are 1-0 with Escobar back in the leadoff spot.

“It just seems to work sometimes,” Yost said.

In some ways, though, the Royals had little to lose. They began the season with Alex Gordon in the leadoff spot. He did not hit. They used Whit Merrifield and Mike Moustakas in the role. They shuffled lineups and experimented with all manner of combinations during a miserable offensive start. Nothing worked. On Monday, the Royals entered the day having scored just 82 runs in 30 games, on pace to become the worst-scoring offense in baseball history.

Not since 1972 has a team averaged fewer than three runs per game in a season. The Royals began the day averaging 2.73. The numbers seem unlikely to hold over the course of 162 games, but Yost sought to mix it up, channeling a version of Esky Magic, the strange, counterintuitive formula that resulted in one World Series appearance in 2014 and a world championship in 2015.

“The numbers don’t suggest it,” Yost said before the game. “I think he’s 7 for 15 with three runs scored in his last 15 games.”

In a 13-month span across two seasons, including the 2014 playoffs and the 2015 regular season, Escobar led off in 162 games. The Royals finished 103-59 in those games, despite the shortstop posting a .293 on-base percentage. As the Royals roared through the postseason in October, Escobar was a talisman atop the order.

“It’s a trip down memory lane,” Yost said.

As he sat inside his office at Tropicana Field, Yost understood the preposterous nature of Escobar’s return to the leadoff spot. In addition to hitting just .183, Escobar had posted a .220 on-base percentage and boasted a track record of free swinging. On the whole, Escobar’s offensive production had declined over the last three seasons. In 2016, he started 82 games in the leadoff spot. He ranked third from last among all qualified hitters in weighted Runs Created Plus, an advanced metric that measures total offensive value.

And yet, Yost shrugged as he discussed the move. He offered a smile. Nothing else has worked. So back to Esky Magic — at least for one night.

“Just trying to throw stuff up against the wall,” Yost said. “See if something sticks.”

And why not? After falling behind 1-0 early, Butera tied the game at 1-1 by barreling a 3-1 fastball in the top of the third inning. Moments later, Escobar ripped a double to left field, and Lorenzo Cain shot a single into center field. The baseball slipped under the glove of Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who was charging in hard. Cain kicked it into gear, circling the bases and giving the Royals a 3-1 lead. For the first time in 39 innings, Kansas City had collected three consecutive hits.

“You know he’s got the speed,” Hosmer said. “Once Cain gets rolling, he can get moving.”

From there, Karns held the line. He worked out of a bases-loaded jam with nobody out in the third, striking out Logan Morrison before coaxing Steven Souza Jr. into a double play. In the moments after the play, Karns yelled out, his voice echoing across a mostly-empty Tropicana Field.

It was just one night, just one win, but for an evening, the fortunes turned toward the Royals.

“It’s crunch time,” Karns said. “I’m just trying to force weak contact, get a strikeout, really help out my defense make a double play realistic.

“I got the punch-out and the defense came up big with the double play. Stuff like that really swings momentum. After that, the offense came alive.”

Crown Chasers: After long journey to the top, can the Royals reign again in 2017?  

Royals 7, Rays 3

Royals

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

Escobar ss

5

1

2

0

0

1

.193

Cain cf

5

2

2

1

0

2

.275

Hosmer 1b

5

2

3

0

0

1

.282

Perez dh

4

0

2

1

1

1

.255

Soler rf

5

0

0

0

0

0

.000

Merrifield 2b

4

0

2

0

0

1

.213

Cuthbert 3b

4

0

0

0

0

0

.128

Gordon lf

2

1

0

0

1

1

.168

Butera c

4

1

2

2

0

0

.208

Totals

38

7

13

4

2

7

 

Rays

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

Dickerson dh

4

1

3

0

1

0

.319

Miller 2b

4

0

1

1

1

3

.193

Longoria 3b

4

0

2

0

1

0

.234

Morrison 1b

4

0

0

0

0

3

.253

Souza Jr. rf

3

0

0

0

0

1

.277

Bourjos rf

1

0

0

0

0

1

.186

Rasmus lf

4

1

2

1

0

2

.235

Beckham ss

4

0

0

0

0

1

.255

Kiermaier cf

4

1

1

0

0

3

.206

Norris c

3

0

0

0

0

2

.202

Totals

35

3

9

2

3

16

 

Royals

003

011

200

7

13

0

Rays

100

000

110

3

9

4

E: Miller (5), Kiermaier (2), Norris 2 (3). LOB: Kansas City 7, Tampa Bay 9. 2B: Escobar (8), Hosmer (3), Dickerson (10). 3B: Rasmus (1). HR: Butera (1), off Snell; Rasmus (2), off Strahm. RBIs: Cain (7), Perez (16), Butera 2 (2), Miller (11), Rasmus (4). SB: Cain (8), Hosmer 2 (2), Gordon (1).

Runners left in scoring position: Kansas City 4 (Perez, Merrifield, Gordon 2); Tampa Bay 4 (Morrison 2, Rasmus, Norris). RISP: Kansas City 4 for 12; Tampa Bay 3 for 12. Runners moved up: Hosmer, Soler, Morrison. FIDP: Cuthbert. GIDP: Soler 2, Souza Jr. DP: Kansas City 1 (Escobar, Merrifield, Hosmer); Tampa Bay 3 (Beckham, Miller, Morrison), (Longoria, Miller, Morrison), (Souza Jr., Morrison).

Royals

I

H

R

ER

W

K

P

ERA

Karns, W, 2-2

6.1

6

2

2

2

10

100

4.58

Strahm

1.2

2

1

1

1

4

34

8.10

Soria

1

1

0

0

0

2

16

2.45

Rays

I

H

R

ER

W

K

P

ERA

Snell, L, 0-3

5

10

4

4

1

2

105

3.96

Pruitt

2

3

3

1

1

3

41

7.52

Whitley

1

0

0

0

0

1

17

0.64

Alvarado

1

0

0

0

0

1

8

9.00

Snell pitched to 1 batter in the 6th.

Inherited runners-scored: Strahm 2-1, Pruitt 1-0. HBP: Pruitt (Gordon), Karns (Norris). WP: Snell, Strahm.

Umpires: Home, Bill Welke; First, Bruce Dreckman; Second, Chad Whitson; Third, Mike Everitt. Time: 3:18. Att: 12,826.

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