On Monday afternoon in Minneapolis, a full three days before his season was officially over, Mike Moustakas stepped out onto the outfield grass at Target Field and tried to test the structural integrity of his right knee.
The workout was brief. As Royals trainer Kyle Turner looked on, Moustakas began some light jogging. He backpedaled for 15 yards. He tried to bear the sting of discomfort as he worked to move his body laterally. After about five minutes, the Royals’ starting third baseman pulled up, stopping in the middle of shallow left field. Something, he would say later, did not feel right.
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Two days later, after the Royals arrived home from a six-day road trip, Moustakas learned the gravity of his injury. Royals team doctor Vincent Key diagnosed Moustakas with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee. A cornerstone piece of the Royals’ championship core is expected to miss the rest of the 2016 season.
Moustakas' season-ending injury stemmed from a high-speed collision with left fielder Alex Gordon on Sunday in Chicago. Gordon suffered a broken scaphoid bone in his right hand and is slated to miss three to four weeks. The Moustakas news offered a second, unexpected, gut punch. In seconds, on an inconsequential foul ball in a 3-2 loss, the Royals lost an All-Star left fielder for a month and an All-Star third baseman until 2017.
“To lose two All-Stars on one play,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “it’s kind of tough.”
The news cast a pall over the clubhouse as the Royals, 24-22, prepared for a weekend series against the Chicago White Sox. (Thursday night’s game was rained out, with a makeup date coming later this season.)
The reality cut deep into a close-knit room. In March, the Royals spoke confidently about their motivations this season: Another American League pennant, another championship, an improbable mini-dynasty in one of baseball’s smallest markets.
Seven weeks into the franchise’s first World Series championship defense in three decades, the Royals must trudge on with the left side of the diamond gutted by injuries.
“It’s going to require players stepping up, doing things that necessarily we weren’t counting on when we built this team,” general manager Dayton Moore said on Thursday afternoon. “That’s part of baseball.”
Moustakas is set to undergo a second opinion in the next few days. For now, there is no surgery planned. In a procedural move, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list. But the Royals are under no illusions that he will play again this season.
"We fully expect the second opinion will be like the first opinion,” Yost said. “He’ll be ready for spring training."
In the immediate aftermath, the Royals called up outfielder Brett Eibner, a former second-round pick in 2010, from Class AAA Omaha to fill the open roster spot. Cheslor Cuthbert, recalled Monday after Gordon went on the disabled list, will move into a permanent role as the Royals’ starting third baseman. Cuthbert, 23, spent much of May with the Royals after Moustakas went on the 15-day disabled list with a broken sesamoid bone in his left thumb. He is batting .237 with a .250 on-base percentage in 15 major-league games.
The Royals view Cuthbert's defense as a decent facsimile of Moustakas's. On the offensive side, Yost said, the Royals will have to pool together.
“We’re going to have to pick up his offense as a group,” Yost said. “But we’ve been doing that here lately. That’s a pretty big chunk of offense that you have to pick up. But it’s a good opportunity for Cheslor."
The void, of course, is sizable. A season ago, Moustakas had the finest season of his young career. He batted .284 with a .348 on-base percentage and 22 homers in 147 games. He posted a 120 OPS-plus, 20 percent better than the league average. He re-configured his left-handed swing and grew into an All-Star at third base, a two-way player capable of changing a game with his defense or one swing of the bat. According to FanGraphs WAR statistic, an advanced metric that measures all contributions, Moustakas was worth 3.8 wins above replacement, the second highest on the team behind center fielder Lorenzo Cain.
In 2016, Moustakas had started hot, hitting .273 with seven homers during the month of April. He suffered the thumb injury on April 26, during a tag play in a 9-4 loss at the Los Angeles Angels. The thumb injury frustrated Moustakas, a player often defined by his intensity and stubbornness. It also necessitated his first-ever trip to the disabled list. On Thursday afternoon, Moustakas had to come to grips with the most serious injury of his career.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Moustakas said. “I wish I could be out there playing baseball with the boys.”
When Moustakas returns to the field next spring, he will be a 28-year-old entering his last season before reaching free agency at the end of the 2017 season. When he arrived to Kauffman Stadium on Thursday, he apologized to his manager and received hugs and condolences from his teammate.
“He was apologetic,” Yost said. “Like, ‘Dude, what are you apologizing for? This is not your fault.’ It was unavoidable.”
The fateful collision, Yost said, “typified” this group of Royals. Two players had sprinted hard after a ball that was most surely foul. Moustakas did not pull up in the final seconds, giving way to Gordon, and both players had gone careening toward the dirt of the warning track in foul territory.
“It’s amazing that we haven’t had more plays like that, because of the fearlessness in which our players play this game,” Moore said. “They like to dive all over the field. They love making those great plays.”
After the collision on Sunday, Moustakas underwent preliminary stability testing from Royals trainer Nick Kenney. The early tests offered mixed signals.
“It felt fairly stable to Nick in there,” Yost said. “Like normally, when you just blow it out, you can just push your knee all over the place. Well, it did have an end point where it would stop. Nick thought it could be a strain of the ligament.”
The next day, Moustakas tested the knee during a workout at Target Field in Minneapolis. When he could not complete the tests, he underwent an MRI, which revealed an issue. The ACL tear was confirmed by the Royals on Wednesday night.
“Some pretty bad news there,” Moustaksas said. “Again, that’s just something that happens in sports.”
So now, the Royals must move forward. Cuthbert will slide into an everyday role at third base. Utility man Whit Merrifield will see more time in the outfield and second base. Eibner could fill in while designated hitter Kendrys Morales recovers from a strained right middle finger.
On Thursday, Moore said the Royals will monitor the trade market for ways to improve their club. But any possible deal will likely come later. The trade deadline is more than two months away.
For now, Moore said, the Royals want to see how they look without Moustakas and Gordon.
“The ingredients for our success is going to be consistent starting pitching giving us a chance to win, and a bullpen that can match up very well,” Moore said. “I believe we’ll still play very good defense, based on the personnel that we have called up to the major leagues. I think we’ll continue to pitch and play defense.”