In one month, Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar shed the label that dogged him throughout a pitiable 2013 campaign. Worst hitter in baseball? He’s been the team’s best hitter through the season’s first 26 games.
When he arrived in Surprise, Arizona, this spring, Escobar pledged to atone, to be more patient at the plate, to showcase the talents that still captivated team officials. No longer would he serve as an offensive black hole. If the claim sounded dubious in February, it sounds less so in May, which the Royals streaked into on Wednesday night with a 4-2 victory over the Blue Jays.
“We’re continuing to win — that’s nice,” Escobar said. “When you win, everybody feels good. Everybody is happy. Everybody wants to play hard.”
Escobar notched the signature hit, a two-run double in the seventh inning, of the team’s fourth victory in five games. He slashed a 92-mph fastball from Toronto starter Drew Hutchinson down the third-base line. His hit trickled into the left-field corner, long enough for catcher Salvador Perez to chug home from first base as an insurance run.
It was Escobar’s eighth double of the season — he managed only 20 of those in 2013. Escobar exited Wednesday’s game in a rare position. He leads his team with a .761 on-base plus slugging percentage, a testament to his revival and the ongoing malaise infecting his teammates.
Yet the Royals (14-12) continue to score enough to emerge victorious for the fourth time in five games. They are now 14-0 when plating four runs in a game. Eric Hosmer doubled twice and drove in a pair of runs to supply some early tallies. The output helped the team survive a shaky performance from rookie starter Yordano Ventura and a sixth-inning mishap from relievers Danny Duffy and Aaron Crow.
Ventura is a sizzling presence on the mound. Against Toronto he was remarkable for his blandness. For five scoreless innings, he combated himself as much as his opponents. The Blue Jays practiced patience. Though Ventura yielded only two hits and two walks, his pitch count accelerated in the 53-degree chill.
“It was cold out there,” said Jeremy Guthrie, who translated for Ventura. “He said naturally it was a little more difficult to command. But his biggest thing was trying to do the best he could win it, and try to keep attacking.”
In Baltimore, manager Ned Yost allowed Ventura to throw 113 pitches. On Wednesday he capped him at 92 after five scoreless innings. During the fifth, Yost explained, the coaching staff noticed Ventura “losing his mechanics, getting underneath pitches, dropping his arm slot a little bit.”
Yost offered a few suggestions for Ventura’s skittishness. One was the cold. The other was the opponent. The Blue Jays feature a bevy of stars from the Dominican Republic, and Yost felt Ventura “was really amped up, a little bit, against his countrymen.”
Ventura shrugged off the idea he wanted to impress Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes. “He says ‘No,’ ” Guthrie said.
Either way, the bullpen inherited a two-run advantage. Duffy folded in his last appearance on Saturday in Baltimore. He loaded the bases by hitting a batter and committing a pair of throwing errors. The disaster cost the Royals the game.
“The other day was probably one of the worst games of my career,” he said on Wednesday afternoon. “And I’ve already erased it.”
Wednesday presented him with a fresh batch of bad memories. Charged with protecting a two-run lead, Duffy plunked former Royal Melky Cabrera with the first pitch he threw. Next he walked slugger Jose Bautista.
“We talk about Ventura losing his mechanics,” Yost said. “Duffy never had his mechanics.”
Yost unveiled a quick hook. He tasked Aaron Crow with suppressing the flames. Instead, Crow yielded a pair of RBI singles to allow Toronto to tie the game. In the aftermath, Duffy castigated himself for over-striding, which sapped his command and caused his pitches to cut on accident.
“The only thing I’m really upset about is Yordano didn’t get the well-deserved win,” Duffy said.
From there, the bullpen crafted a rickety bridge to closer Greg Holland. Kelvin Herrera escaped a seventh-inning that began with a double and a walk. Wade Davis loaded the bases in the eighth, but froze Reyes with a 97-mph fastball for his third strikeout.
In between, Escobar shined. Billy Butler opened the seventh with a single. Yost pulled him for pinch-runner Jimmy Paredes, a task he felt necessary, if unpalatable. Paredes would steal both second and third base before scoring on Escobar’s hit.
Escobar finished 2013 with a .553 OPS. The Royals insisted he was closer to the player he was in 2012, the man who batted .292, the sort of shortstop they intended to build around. Thus far, the team has been right.
“Last year, that happened,” Escobar said. “That’s last year. That’s done. We’ve got new guys, a new mentality, a new focus on the game. I’m just continuing to work hard and play hard.”