The chain-link fence in right-center field at Kauffman Stadium lacks cushion or compassion. Lorenzo Cain knows this better than most. When he extended his left arm to snag a line drive on Thursday afternoon, he understood his left shoulder would pay a price. “It has a little give to it,” Cain said. “But not much.”
Upon impact with the wall, at the end of a stunning, second-inning grab in a 4-1 Royals victory, Cain crumpled, tumbled heels over head and flopped onto his back. There he remained for about 15 seconds as the Royals, 20,236 fans and one appreciative pitcher waited to salute him.
On the mound, midway through eight innings of one-run baseball, Edinson Volquez tipped his cap three times. It was an act he repeated so often on Thursday, he lost count. “Unbelievable,” Volquez said. “I think we’ve got the best defense in baseball right now.”
Volquez stalled for Cain to rise to his feet. At last Cain stood, as Volquez and thousands of others acknowledged him. The catch set the tone for Volquez’s debut as a Royal: He could do little wrong, the defenders behind him were superlative and the White Sox stood scant chance of preventing a sweep.
“We wanted to make a statement, first series of the year,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “We did a good job of doing that.”
As an opening act in the defense of their American League crown, the Royals decimated their division rivals. They outscored Chicago, 21-7. The bullpen allowed zero runs. The defense dropped jaws. The offense threw haymakers.
The latest was a two-run homer by Salvador Perez in the sixth inning. Perez aided a three-run outburst that let manager Ned Yost rest Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis. Though Greg Holland pitched for the second day in a row, Yost expects his bullpen to be fresh for an American League Division Series rematch this weekend in Anaheim.
“If somebody would say ‘Boy, you’re really firing on all cylinders,’ I’d have to agree,” Yost said. “We are. We’re hitting for power. We’re clutch-hitting. We’re playing great defense. We’re running the bases well. Our bullpen’s been excellent. Our starting pitching has been excellent.”
Volquez, 1-0, 1.13 ERA, delivered the best starting performance of the series. He allowed four hits and only six men on base in all. The White Sox did not place a runner on third base until Alexei Ramirez’s seventh-inning RBI single. Volquez pumped first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 29 batters he faced. He issued only one walk — a feat he accomplished only eight times in 31 starts for Pittsburgh in 2014.
As a Pirate, Volquez revived his career because of tweaks in his delivery and the superlative positioning of his teammates. On Thursday he experienced what his new defense could provide for him.
First, Cain flagged down Adam LaRoche’s second-inning screamer. An inning later, he backtracked to the wall for a drive by rookie second baseman Micah Johnson. Cain caught the ball with enough time to twist his body. Only his back connected with the wall this time. He unleashed a holler as the crowd roared.
In the seventh, Volquez stumbled into his first hint of trouble. With two outs, Ramirez drove in a run. Then Conor Gillaspie flared a potential hit into left field. Playing in place of Alex Gordon, rookie outfielder Paulo Orlando raced down the ball to snuff out the rally. “You see those guys behind you making all those kinds of plays, it’s the best feeling in the world,” Volquez said.
Orlando also raked a triple in his major-league debut. The hit allowed for brief flashbacks to the doldrums of 2014. The Royals stranded Orlando in the fifth, an inning after they stranded two more runners. The sequence recalled their offensive futility for stretches of last season and their long-standing misery against White Sox starter John Danks.
A middling southpaw, Danks exhibits a sort of mastery over the Royals. He entered the game undefeated in 16 outings with a 2.43 ERA against them. The Royals unleashed 17 runs on the White Sox in their first two games. The hitters amassed four home runs. For a club often starved for power in 2014, the output looked encouraging. Yost still sought to downplay the resurgence.
“The power thing gets overrated, for me,” he said before the game. “We can win ballgames in a bunch of different ways. And everybody wants to talk about power, power, power. Is it great to have? Yeah, absolutely. Would I love to have it every single day? Yeah! Everybody would.
“But it’s not the key component to our club. We can do things offensively, with our athleticism and speed on the base paths, that help us win ballgames.”
For these past three games, the team displayed how devastating they can be when they can access their power. In the sixth, Cain roped his first double of the year. Two batters later, Kendrys Morales plated him with a double. Two batters after that, Perez deposited a changeup in the Royals bullpen.
The relief corps could stand down until the ninth. Volquez and his defenders handled the rest.
After the game, Cain reflected on the past three games. The series inflicted an emotional and physical toll on him. The White Sox plunked him twice. He launched a game-winning homer on Wednesday. A day later, he sacrificed his body to defend a lead.
As Cain spoke, Alex Gordon walked past. Gordon is one of the few people on Earth who understand the firmness of the Kauffman Stadium fence better than Cain does.
“I run into the wall all the time,” Cain said.
“Shocker,” Gordon deadpanned.
Cain dropped his head to his chest and laughed. Most of his teammates had already dressed and readied themselves for a flight to the West Coast. The 2015 season has dawned in hopeful fashion.
“To get off to this type of start, it’s exciting and it’s fun,” Yost said. “But we know that it’s a long year. And you ride it as long as you can.”