One of the final tests came a few days ago. Salvador Perez was hitting baseballs off a machine inside a batting tunnel at Kauffman Stadium. He swung hard at a pitch and missed. The sensation in his healed intercostal muscle offered hope that he was ready to return to the field.
“I don’t feel anything,” Perez said.
It was on an awkward swing on Aug. 4 that Perez, the Royals’ All-Star catcher, first strained the muscle in his right side. The injury forced a trip to the 10-day disabled list and 15 games off. On Tuesday night, Perez returned to the lineup as the Royals opened a three-game series against the Colorado Rockies.
“I feel really good,” Perez said.
As he faced a collection of reporters Tuesday afternoon, Perez said he felt ready to return on Sunday. But the Royals’ training staff wanted him to spend two more days ramping up his hitting workouts, ensuring that he would be healthy enough to test his right side in game action.
In a corresponding roster move, the club optioned catcher Cam Gallagher back to Class AAA Omaha. Perez was in the starting lineup Tuesday for the first time since Aug. 4, hitting fifth behind first baseman Eric Hosmer.
The Royals initially estimated that Perez would miss two to three weeks after the injury. Tuesday represented the 18th day since he left the game early against the Mariners at Kauffman Stadium.
Perez was batting .278 with a .308 on-base percentage and 21 homers in 99 games before the injury. He ranks 11th among all major-league catchers in Wins Above Replacement, according to the FanGraphs version of the statistic.
Gallagher and backup Drew Butera combined to hit .333 (17-51) with six walks and two homers in 15 games. Gallagher will likely return in September when rosters expand. But the pitching staff suffered in Perez’s absence, posting a 6.05 ERA in August, the second worst in baseball.
Royals manager Ned Yost said he was hopeful that Perez’s return could offer a spark.
“He’s got a presence,” Yost said. “He’s a pretty big presence in our lineup.”