In the ninth inning Friday night, shortstop Alcides Escobar walked to the plate with a pair of runners on base and none out. He bats leadoff for the Royals and carried a .467 average with him. He was the hottest hitter on an undefeated ball club.
What followed felt familiar to anyone who follows this club closely. Escobar did not search for a pitch to drive or attempt to coax a walk. He squared up to bunt and pushed a sacrifice to the left side of the infield. In the process he revealed why he embodies the unconventional methods of this lineup.
“I’m a leadoff guy,” Escobar said. “If I see a guy on second base, I’m trying to get him over to third base.”
Manager Ned Yost wears a label as an excessive fan of bunting. Yost does not deny his affinity for the maneuver, but he also reminds how often his players choose to bunt on their own. Escobar almost always bunts without instruction from the dugout. The coaching staff does not deter him, because even as the team’s leadoff hitter, they do not intend to alter his style.
The sequence on Friday proved successful. Two batters later, Lorenzo Cain worked a bases-loaded walk and padded the Royals’ advantage. Escobar finished the night with a hit, a walk and a run scored as he continued to catalyze a burgeoning offensive attack.
Escobar is far from a traditional choice to hit at the top of a lineup. He entered this season with a .299 on-base percentage since his debut in 2008. He swings early and often. Yet the Royals experienced success with Escobar batting first in the final weeks of 2014, so Yost stuck with the formula for this season.
“I think he just feels like he can use his skill set more up there,” Yost said. “And be a bit of an igniter at the top of the order. He really likes hitting leadoff. He really likes it.
“Some guys don’t like it because they think they have to change their style of play. They’ve got to take more pitches, they’ve got to do this, they’ve got to do that. We just want him to be him.”
Yost gave these instructions to Escobar as the 2014 regular season drew to a close. On Sept. 13, Yost installed Escobar as his leadoff hitter. Escobar caught fire. He posted a .375 batting average and an .896 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the final 15 games. His numbers sagged in October, but he still hit .292 with a .718 OPS.
Escobar has shown some semblance of a more discerning eye at the plate, but he will never be confused with an on-base machine like Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson. His game relies on aggression.
“Ned knows that,” Escobar said. “I like to swing the bat.”
He will continue to do that. Escobar looks locked into his place in the batting order. He doesn’t intend to leave.
“I like leadoff because the leadoff guy is always trying to get on base, walk, base hit, whatever,” Escobar said. “And I feel really comfortable in that spot.”