Breaking down the Royals' successful road trip
For another day, the music played inside the visitors clubhouse. On the bottom floor of Angel Stadium, the boisterous celebration could be heard in a nearby foyer. The sound of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” booming through walls. A voice screaming above the cheers. A victorious ritual after a seventh victory in nine games.
The Royals do this after every win, a tradition born across postseason runs and World Series appearances, a rollicking way to savor every good day like it might be their last. Yet for close to two months, the postgame scenes were becoming a rare sight, a casualty as an offense scuffled and a team began to buckle under the weight of expectations and uncertainty.
On June 5, the Royals were 24-32, 6 1/2 games out of first place, and if the buzzards weren't quite circling, they were thinking about the proper time. On Sunday, the music was back after a 7-3 victory over the Los Angeles Angels.
Salvador Perez clubbed a three-run homer in a four-run fourth inning. Starter Jason Vargas allowed three runs across six innings while earning his major-league-leading 10th win. The Royals (33-35) closed out a nine-game California road trip with another promising performance, shaking off a shutout loss on Saturday that ended a six-game winning streak. In the process, they pulled to within two games of .500 and 3 1/2 games of the first-place Cleveland Indians in the American League Central.
The Royals may have changed the arc of their season by beating up on two bad teams and one mediocre club during a 10-day span. They may have changed perceptions across baseball, too, a championship core regrouping for a June run under the threat of a painful trade deadline. Not that manager Ned Yost thought about the latter as he sat inside his office on late Sunday afternoon.
“I don’t really care if people look at us or not,” Yost said. “We know what we’re capable of doing. We feel good about our team. We haven’t, even in years when we’ve won world championships, got a lot of people looking at us and thinking we were very good — even back then.”
The Royals, though, finally appear to be resembling the outfit that made consecutive postseason appearances in 2014 and 2015 and finished .500 last season while dealing with a rash of injuries. The roster is different now, a little more power, a little less speed, a bullpen not quite as dominant. But the spine of the 2015 team remains in catcher Salvador Perez, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas. The core showed up during a nine-game road trip through San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Perez’s three-run shot off reliever Keynan Middleton in the fourth on Sunday gave the Royals’ 18 homers on the road trip, including six from Cain and 14 total from the aforementioned four players. The barrage left the Royals with 82 homers for the season, on pace for 195 in 162 games. The number would shatter the club’s franchise record of 168, set in 1987.
“They’ve been some big homers, too,” said Hosmer, who notched his 500th career RBI on Sunday. “That’s kind of the way our team has molded into this year. We get some guys on, get some timely hitting.”
The Royals were hitting homers in April and May, too. But with too many holes in the lineup, the blasts were often solo. That has changed in the last couple weeks. With the emergence of Jorge Bonifacio, the continued production of Whit Merrifield, who was off on Sunday, and torrid stretches from Hosmer and Cain, the offense has hit its stride. Even after getting shut out on Saturday, the Royals averaged 6.1 runs per game on the road trip. The staggering numbers will not continue, of course, but this is the unit the Royals expected coming out of spring training, Yost said. Now they must find a way to produce back at home at Kauffman Stadium as they open a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox.
“You feel good in parks that are home run parks,” Yost said. “It’s a little bit different going home. But we’re swinging the bats well right now.”
As the offense finished off the road trip in style, Vargas became the first pitcher in baseball to reach 10 wins. With his record at 10-3 and a 2.27 ERA, he did not appear particularly interested in his number of victories.
“I mean, I’ll take it,” Vargas said. “I don’t know if I’m going to look much into it past that. It’s definitely nice to have more wins than losses.”
On Sunday, he allowed two runs in the first inning, including an RBI double from Kole Calhoun that smacked off the top of the wall in right field. He then worked four straight scoreless innings before running into trouble in the sixth. With the lead at 7-2, Vargas loaded the bases by allowing a double to Yunel Escobar, a single to Andrelton Simmons and a walk to C.J. Cron. As the Royals’ bullpen readied, Yost stuck with Vargas.
He limited the damage by coaxing Danny Espinosa into a shallow fly ball to right field before Ben Revere hit a sacrifice fly to center. The inning ended when Juan Graterol popped out to first base.
“It was just kind of a grind, and I wasn’t making as many good pitches,” Vargas said. “So I was really just trying to miss — if I was going to miss — miss in the right spot.”
Vargas could not offer dominance, his most common state in 2017. But the Royals’ offense picked him up. Mike Moustakas cleared the bases with a two-out double in the third off Angels starter JC Ramirez. Perez hammered a homer to center in the fourth. And the Royals could basked in a productive road trip and a flight back to Kansas City.
On Monday, a three-game series with the Red Sox awaits. After that, the Toronto Blue Jays will come to town. As he pondered the schedule, Hosmer deemed it a good time to get back home.
“We’re ready for it, and we’re playing good,” he said. “So if there’s any time to take on those guys, it’s right now.”