The phone rang about an hour after Dale Sveum lost the first major-league managerial job of his career. On the first Sunday of last October, the front office of the Chicago Cubs deposed him after two seasons of service. As he walked into the Wrigley Field parking lot, unsure of his next move, he looked down at his phone to see a call from an old friend.
A few weeks before, Royals manager Ned Yost had heard rumors about Sveum’s potential downfall on the North Side. Once the decision became official, he pounced. “If you want,” Yost told him, “I’ve got a spot for you here on my staff.”
The next morning, Sveum accepted. He reunited with Yost, who he had studied under in Milwaukee from 2006 to 2008. He returned to this city Friday night, for a sort of homecoming, as the recently installed hitting coach of a surging Royals offense, which stayed hot in a 7-2 thumping of the White Sox.
“It’s worked out very, very well for us,” Yost said.
Call it a conflation of causation with correlation, if you like, but this season’s upswing coincides with Sveum leaving his position as third-base coach and replacing Pedro Grifol. The Royals (34-32) won their 10th game in their last 14.
On Friday they pummeled White Sox starter Jose Quintana with a five-run barrage before he had even recorded two outs, and scored six runs or more for the seventh time since Sveum took over.
Jeremy Guthrie reaped the benefits. In his previous five starts, Guthrie (3-6, 4.04 ERA) had received five runs of run support total. He overcame a touchy start and 11 men on base to limit the White Sox to two runs in 5 2/3 innings. His nine strikeouts matched his highest total as a Royal.
The game provided a heartening start to this road trip. The lone scare occurred in the eighth, when shortstop Alcides Escobar limped off the diamond after a double. Exhalation occurred only when the training staff diagnosed a cramp in his left calf. He will likely sit out on Saturday, even as he said afterward, “If I’m feeling good, I’m playing.”
Fresh off an encouraging stand at Kauffman Stadium, with five victories in seven games, the Royals embarked on a seven-game stretch against American League Central Division opponents. After three games against the White Sox, a four-game series with the division leaders in Detroit looms. Even Yost conceded, “It’s a huge road trip.”
“We’re two-and-a-half games out of first place,” he said. “We’re playing good baseball. It’s going to be an interesting week.”
The start of the trip was ideal. Sveum has not instilled in his hitters a new philosophical approach, but he has delivered different points of emphasis. Grifol underscored usage of the lower half. Sveum concentrates more on a player’s head and his hands. The changes are subtle, enough so the players are reticent to assign him too much credit, for fear of criticizing Grifol, an instructor they appreciated.
“Honestly, man, I really don’t think that had anything to do with it, to be honest with you,” said first baseman Eric Hosmer, who recorded two RBIs and two walks Friday. “But something had to happen, obviously. If anything, it was a spark for us. Woke us all up.”
Sveum also hit on a simple refrain. Do damage on pitches up in the strike zone, he told his hitters. The first two batters in the first inning did that. Nori Aoki and Omar Infante roped singles on elevated pitches by Quintana.
Hosmer punched a single through the right side for the team’s first run. Billy Butler followed with an RBI single just past the reach of third baseman Conor Gillaspie.
Then Quintana stumbled into the most dangerous portion of the team’s batting order. Up came Alex Gordon, the club’s hottest hitter these past few weeks. Gordon lifted a thigh-high fastball into the right-field corner for an RBI double.
The hit shuttled a pair of runners into scoring position for Lorenzo Cain. Quintana flipped a curveball that split the plate. Cain slashed it for a two-run double, and the rout was on.
“It’s a good sign to see,” Yost said. “To come out swinging the bats the way we did.”
A couple of hours before the game, a group of local reporters surrounded Sveum in the dugout. The crowd caused Yost to do a double-take as he walked past. Sveum held court for about 10 minutes. He was philosophical about perils of rebuilding. He was respectful toward the men who had fired him.
The Cubs dismissed Sveum with a year remaining on his contract. He had little interest in sitting out a season. For that, the Royals are grateful.
“I don’t really think too much about it anymore,” Sveum said. “I’m focused here. We’ve got a good team. We’re really playing well right now. We’re back in the thick of things.”
To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.