In the wake of his latest injury hiccup, a strained groin muscle that cost him 17 games, Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain received a piece of advice from trainer Nick Kenney and strength and conditioning coach Ryan Stoneberg: Stop lunging through the bag at first base.
Cain injured himself trying to beat out an infield single on April 16. His legs are fragile, prone to muscle pulls. He has spent hours tinkering with his running form to maintain a controlled pace that doesn’t put his body at risk. But on close plays at first, his form often disappears.
“I’m almost doing a (darn) split in the air,” Cain said before returning to action on Monday night at Petco Park. “I’m doing that, and like calling myself ‘safe’ at the same time.”
The practice feels natural. But Cain understands the risk. He has never played more than 115 games in a big-league season, and he will be eligible for arbitration this coming winter.
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“If it causes me to get injured,” Cain said, “I’ve got to eliminate it.”
The precaution robs Cain of one of his offensive assets. He batted .333 before the injury, in part thanks to a series of infield singles. But he is not here for his offense.
Before Cain began a rehabilitation assignment with Class AAA Omaha on Friday, he suggested he needed 20 at-bats to prepare for big-league action. He received seven. The team cut short his rehab because they felt needed his glove in center field.
“Especially when we’re struggling to score runs,” manager Ned Yost said.
For the same reason, Yost kept Billy Butler out of Monday’s lineup in a National League park. He did so even though Butler is one of the team’s hottest hitters. Yost decided Eric Hosmer’s defense at first base was critical. Butler will be utilized as a pinch hitter this series.
The offense remains a concern for the team, but they opted to alter their plans with Cain to improve their run prevention. Cain stressed he felt no lingering discomfort in his groin. The organization decided he was healthy enough to return.
“He was feeling good, feeling really, really good,” Yost said. “Instead of shagging fly balls for Omaha, we wanted him shagging fly balls for us.”
The Royals scratched Cain from Sunday’s game in Omaha. He drove from Nebraska to Kauffman Stadium and flew on the team charter to the West Coast. He went zero for seven in his two minor-league games, and made a sliding catch in the outfield.
In his absence, Jarrod Dyson and Justin Maxwell platooned in center. Cain regained his starting place in the lineup, and Yost expects to play him five days a week. As a manager, there is little he can do to prevent a recurrence of injury.
“You pick your spots,” Yost said. “You don’t over-do it. This was kind of a fluke thing. Time will tell. I don’t really think, even though he’s had injuries the last three years, that he’s injury-prone.”
His history suggests otherwise. He has suffered injuries to his knees, hips, groin and an oblique muscle. But he intends to curtail that trend.
The first step? No more lunging.
“I’ve been doing it for a long time,” Cain said. “But I’ve got to get it out of there. If it’s going to cause me to go on the D.L., then it’s something I’ve got to stop. I think I can get rid of it. It won’t be hard.”
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