Royals

Ned Yost reconfigures lineup, watches Royals knock off Red Sox, 7-1

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie (11) throws in the first inning during Saturday's baseball game against the Boston Red Sox on September 13, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie (11) throws in the first inning during Saturday's baseball game against the Boston Red Sox on September 13, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

The lineup flashes daily on television screens inside the Royals clubhouse, and most days it inspires nary a glance. Manager Ned Yost values continuity and dislikes meddling with his batting order. Only a crisis, like the one facing his club before Saturday’s 7-1 victory over Boston, can inspire him to experiment.

Upon his arrival Saturday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium, Lorenzo Cain gazed at the screen and searched for his name at the bottom of the list. On this day he found his name inked into the third spot, the slot traditionally handled by the team’s premier slugger, for the first time this season.

Asked if the lineup caused him to do a double take, Cain guffawed.

“More like a triple take, quadruple take,” he said before hitting a fourth-inning double that ignited a three-run rally, and scoring twice in helping the Royals ease the tension created already in this home stand.

Aided by a lively offense — a rare sight this month — the Royals, 81-66, won for only the second time in their last six games. Yost’s changes paid dividends: New leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar had two hits and sparked a first-inning flurry. Alex Gordon snapped a zero-for-21 slump with two hits and two runs. Moved out of the No. 2 spot, Omar Infante responded with three hits.

“Looks like it helped a little bit,” Yost said after the game, managing to avoid flashing a smirk. He indicated he will stick with this group for today’s series finale.

Jeremy Guthrie, 11-11, rebounded from a debacle in Detroit. He spun eight innings with only three hits and one run allowed. He was once again able to trust his defenders behind him, and retired the last 17 batters he faced. Facing a moribund, rookie-packed team like Boston couldn’t have hurt.

Yet the Royals could not conquer this club the previous two nights. They awoke Saturday in second place for the first time since Aug. 10. The causes for their descent were not hard to discern. The offense vanished. The bad habits of July — impatient at-bats, tepid power — became crippling.

“The last two nights,” Escobar said, “it was horrible.”

Faced with little other choice, Yost jumbled the lineup in dramatic fashion. Escobar became the leadoff hitter. Nori Aoki was the designated hitter and batted second. Alex Gordon moved into the cleanup role, bumped from the No. 3 spot by Cain.

Cain fit the concept of the lineup. Yost eschewed the time-tested appeal of on-base percentage and sought to bunch fleet-footed hitters near the top. Speed does not slump, and Yost lacked other appealing options. He also lacked room for Billy Butler, who sat out once again after going hitless Friday.

“I wanted speed in the lineup,” Yost said. “And all I’ve got is nine spots. If I could have used 10, I would have used Billy.”

Instead, Butler rode the bench. He declined an interview request from The Star in polite fashion, citing his required attendance at a hitters’ meeting. He has two hits in his last 29 at-bats and has become a September spectator.

Butler watched from the dugout as the newfangled lineup paid immediate dividends. In his first at-bat, Escobar dumped a fastball into left field for a double. Aoki bounced an RBI single over the head of third baseman Will Middlebrooks.

Aoki advanced to second on the throw home. Cain moved him to third with a checked-swing grounder. When Aoki drifted a few steps too far from the bag, the Red Sox erred. The pickoff throw from rookie catcher Christian Vazquez thumped off Aoki’s back and into the outfield. Aoki shook off the blow and trotted home.

“I thought the first inning, for me, was a real good sign,” Yost said.

The sequence personified the ideal of his thought process: Aggression on the bases could trump ineffectiveness at the plate. Escobar reached second base on a well-placed hit. He scored on a bouncing ground ball. Vazquez allowed the second run by attempting to squash Kansas City’s running game.

During the previous two nights, the Royals defense bobbled grounders and tossed others away. The team cannot afford errors. Their margin for error is too slim, as pitching and defense form the dueling strands of this club’s DNA.

“It’s been a bit of a struggle for us, offensively, lately, to cover that,” Yost said. “So it makes it an even bigger issue for us right now.”

The latest stumble occurred Saturday when Mike Moustakas bungled a routine grounder by rookie Mookie Betts. The error led to a run. Betts jetted to third on a single by David Ortiz. Yoenis Cespedes halved Boston’s deficit with a sacrifice fly.

The Royals would not repeat their follies of the previous two nights. They compensated for the error in expedient fashion. Cain waited for a 3-2 fastball down the pipe before swinging and smashed a double past Middlebrooks’ outstretched glove.

Up came Gordon, who singled to right. The next pitch by De La Rosa was a 97-mph fastball above the belt. Salvador Perez was late to the pitch, but still dropped it into right field for an RBI double.

The Royals had a run and two more runners in scoring position. What followed contradicted the script written in recent weeks: both runners came home. Infante scored one with a grounder toward third base. Perez came home when umpire Jim Reynolds dinged De La Rosa for a balk.

“Just taking advantage of what they’re giving us,” Cain said. “No one tried to do too much tonight.”

The barrage continued into the eighth. Cain walked and Gordon promptly doubled him home. Two batters later, Infante raked a run-scoring single.

The group will reassemble for a repeat performance this afternoon.

“I think when you’re struggling, it’s always good to switch up the lineup,” Gordon said. “You don’t want to get stuck with the same lineup. Sometimes coming to the ballpark with something new, just a little something that changes up things, is helpful.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.

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