As Drew Butera strode to the plate Monday for his first plate appearance in eight days, he looked out toward Houston closer Luke Gregerson and took a deep breath. Then Butera visualized a game plan.
Look for a pitch up, Butera thought to himself. Look for a pitch he could lift into the air.
It was the top of the eighth inning at Minute Maid Park, the flash point of the Royals’ 9-6 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. The Royals had already tied the game with a frantic, manic, improbable rally — five singles and an error scoring four runs and knotting the game at 6-6.
In the dugout, the players sat at attention on the dugout rail and shouted: “Keeping the line moving!”
With one out and runners on second and third, the line came to Butera, a backup catcher who had replaced Salvador Perez in the bottom of the seventh. In the first postseason plate appearance of Butera’s career, the challenge was simple enough: a duel with Gregerson, a reliever who racked up 31 saves and held right-handed hitters to a .189 batting average this season. A battle with a groundball specialist when the situation called for something in the air.
“It’s never a comfortable at-bat against him,” Butera said.
When it was over, Butera had seen 10 pitches — including four sliders and three sinking fastballs with two strikes — and clawed back from a 1-2 count, drawing a crucial walk. The plate appearance churned the line and set the stage for Alex Gordon, who broke the 6-6 deadlock with an RBI ground-out to second.
“The biggest at-bat to me was Butera,” said Royals second baseman Ben Zobrist. “The amount of focus and controlling your nerves when you haven’t been in the game yet. He just had a professional at-bat.”
The first pitch of the plate appearance was a 79-mph slider. It missed for ball one. Gregerson came back with a 90-mph sinker on the black. Strike one. Next came a 81-mph slider that caused Butera to swing and miss. And from that moment, it was a matter of survival. Butera had hit just .196 this season, joining the Royals in early May and sliding into the role of Perez’s backup. The thing about being a backup catcher on the Royals is that you know, on most days, you will not be needed. The key is to fight this urge, Butera said, day after day.
“I always try to stay ready,” he said.
And still, Butera had started just 24 games this season, even as Royals manager Ned Yost tried to find more rest for Perez. Butera batted just 14 times in September, even as the Royals appeared to have the AL Central on lock. The luxury of consistent playing time and at-bats? Never.
And here Butera was Monday, with the season on the line, fighting off slider after slider, sinker after sinker. When the count hit two strikes, Butera said, Gregerson came back with a slider and three fastballs, all on the corner and down.
“I think those were about as perfect of pitches as you can make,” Butera said. “Right on the black, down below the knees.”
On the final pitch, Butera took an 80-mph slider for ball four. He jogged down to first. The bases were loaded again. And Gordon stepped to the plate, moments from giving the Royals the lead.
“You’re talking about a guy that maybe had one or two at-bats in the last couple of weeks,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “So for him to come in, face a closer, especially with as devastating a slider as (Gregerson) has over there … that’s why this was truly a team win.”