Sam Mellinger

Royals are bloodied, bruised but still keep finding ways to win

The Royals’ Alcides Escobar tagged out the Athletics’ Billy Burns on a force-out at second base in the third inning of Sunday’s game.
The Royals’ Alcides Escobar tagged out the Athletics’ Billy Burns on a force-out at second base in the third inning of Sunday’s game. The Associated Press

Blood has seeped from under a broken fingernail, dried, and clings to the skin. Apologies if you just cringed, but trust me, the thing looks worse up close.

The nail on Alcides Escobar’s right index finger is split, almost exactly down the middle, leaving one side darker than the other. This happened in the seventh inning, with the Royals protecting a one-run lead, when a grounder came in hot and smashed head-on into the finger. If you’d like to know what it feels like, have a friend smash the tip of your finger with a hammer.

Escobar stayed in the game, but the pain worsened and the feeling dulled to the point that he had to come out. The Royals went on to beat the A’s 5-3 on Saturday, because of course they did, and afterward Escobar looked down at his finger and shrugged.

Except for the aftermath of Brett Lawrie’s slide into his knee and Danny Salazar’s fastball to the head and now a grounder into his finger, Escobar has played every inning this season.

“I’ll be ready tomorrow,” he said. “I can play.”

This is the Royals right now. Banged up, probably tired, and can’t wait to play again. Oh, and winning. Steady winning. The Royals completed a three-game sweep of the previously hot A’s with their center fielder, shortstop and first baseman hurt. Also, closer Greg Holland was unavailable after saves the last two days.

They are now 44-28. That’s the high-water mark for the season. A year ago, 16 games over .500 was good enough for a playoff spot. They have a 5 1/2 game lead in the division, and have won 10 of 13. Their bats had been slumping, but they are hitting .308 as a team over the last two weeks.

Resiliency has long been this group’s defining strength. That’s what got them out of a skid that sparked one more switch at hitting coach last May, another one that turned up fan frustration last July, and back from a four-run deficit against Jon Lester in the AL Wild Card game.

It’s also what has them in such a good place at the moment, because if they were six games over .500 instead of 16 the explanations would be many and justified. Eight members of the 25-man opening day roster have been on the disabled list. Four have been suspended. Another missed time for a family emergency.

Last year, one of the overlooked and undertold stories of the Royals’ success was a remarkable record of health.

Now, they are so far the American League’s best team with a season’s worth of injuries in the first three months.

“It’s exciting, yeah,” catcher Sal Perez says. “We feel confident.”

This weekend in general, and this win on Sunday in particular, serve as poignant examples of the Royals’ ability to find solutions.

Lorenzo Cain (hamstring) and Eric Hosmer (finger) got hurt executing a key double steal on Saturday. Hosmer took the day off from the field, starting at DH, but was replaced by Cain as the finger worsened. The Royals were less than their typically brilliant selves defensively, too.

Oakland scored its first run when Jarrod Dyson overthrew the cutoff man, and got its second run when a pop-up dropped between Alex Gordon and Escobar. Gordon thought he heard Escobar call for it, but the shortstop lost the ball in the sky.

But they found enough scraps to make a meal, in no small part because the A’s could not get out of their own way. Max Muncy made a bad decision to go home with a grounder in the fifth, then threw the ball away, which eventually allowed an additional two runs to score. Perez hit his 12th homer of the season — his 500th hit in the big leagues — which was enough for another solid pitching performance.

Jeremy Guthrie gave up just two runs, striking out seven and walking one, over six innings. Relievers Franklin Morales, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis were good enough to push the Royals’ record when leading after six innings to 36-2.

All of it operating at, maybe, 70 percent.

“These types of wins,” Guthrie says, “not only are they a win in the win column, but I think they go a long ways to better the morale of 25 guys.”

This all makes for an important point about this team. Even among those who were optimistic about the Royals, there was a sense that the team’s margin for error would be small.

Much of the Royals’ success last year — particularly in the playoffs — came with a familiar and somewhat rigid playbook. Put the ball in play, run like hell, catch everything, and lock down the last three innings. Especially with their remarkable health, it was easy to wonder how it would all hold up over 162 games of blind turns.

The Royals are still less than halfway through their season, but have so far blown up the concern. They have won games that old way, of course. But they have won many others with loads of runs, or terrific starts from unexpected sources, and some like Saturday — a MacGyverian ability to adapt and conquer.

In that way, the blood on Escobar’s finger isn’t gross. It’s a sign of accomplishment.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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