Sam Mellinger

Eric Hosmer shines as the Royals come from behind to beat Astros

It didn’t look pretty, but Eric Hosmer got the job done with an RBI single in the bottom of the sixth inning during Friday’s American League Division Series game at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals defeated Houston, 5-4.
It didn’t look pretty, but Eric Hosmer got the job done with an RBI single in the bottom of the sixth inning during Friday’s American League Division Series game at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals defeated Houston, 5-4. tljungblad@kcstar.com

By the time Eric Hosmer stands in front of his locker, the moment has already been put on the Internet. He lived the moment, changed what sure felt like a critical playoff game with the moment, but he has not yet seen the moment until an iPhone is put in front of him. Press play. Hosmer is already laughing.

The pitch is a slider — another slider — and Hosmer is beat. Absolutely beat.

This pitch is way off the plate, but Hosmer is expecting a fastball, so by the time he recognizes the break it’s too late. He goes into what hitters call the emergency hack, with his rear end jutting back, shoulders lunging over the plate and those long arms throwing the head of the bat toward the ball. At the point of contact, Hosmer looks like he’s sitting on a toilet. It’s quite a scene.

“It was in our dugout,” Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas will say about Hosmer’s rear end.

Hosmer is fooled so badly on the pitch that the bat may never have even crossed the plate. But he does make contact, and the gods have kissed this baseball because it lands softly in the outfield away from any Astros fielders. A run scores. Kauffman Stadium explodes with joy.

The Royals will go on to beat the Astros 5-4. The American League Division Series is tied at one game each. After it is over, Alex Rios and Alcides Escobar will remember Hosmer’s butt-out bloop as the single moment that did the most to instill confidence. Luck, finally, is back on the Royals’ side.

“Oh my goodness,” Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson would say. “Momentum, man. Momentum.”

Perez’s pitch is measured more than nine inches off the plate, and about a foot and a half off the ground. Because we can know everything in baseball now, the wonderful baseballsavant.com tells us only 20 pitches that far from the center of the strike zone turned into hits this year.

Hosmer is watching this on the phone, after living it in the batter’s box, and the whole thing is making him laugh.

“I guess (Jeff Francoeur) had a big impact on me my rookie season,” he jokes. “I have no idea. That’s all I’ve got.”

Hosmer can have fun now. The Royals won. The series is even. They were somewhat flat in the opener, falling behind early and never making a serious threat. Game 2 was headed in the same direction — Johnny Cueto gave up four runs and eight baserunners in the first three innings — before Hosmer’s hit keyed a rally that tied the score in the sixth.

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In the seventh, Alcides Escobar tripled and scored on a single by Ben Zobrist and the bullpen locked down the win. Phew.

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Nobody said this out loud, and it’s baseball, so anything can happen, but if they went to Houston with an elimination game against presumptive Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, the only people thinking the Royals could still win the series would be the players and their children.

“A little bit, yeah,” Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain said when asked if he was starting to get worried. “A little bit.”

After the Royals beat the Astros 5-4 on Friday and tied the AL Division Series going back to Houston, Ben Zobrist, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Johnny Cueto and Mike Moustakas discussed the key moments.

Hosmer’s bloop was lucky, but there was some skill involved here, too. He won’t say that, other than to mention it goes with the team’s style of avoiding strikeouts and putting the ball in play. Every other team in baseball struck out at least 100 times more than these Royals.

But this was not entirely luck. Not by a long shot. Big-league hitters will sometimes mention that part of what separates the good ones is what they do when they’re fooled. Watching the replay of Hosmer’s hit, Rios was reminded of Vladimir Guerrero.

It takes a special combination of balance, agility, length, quick hands and quicker reaction to be so wrong on a pitch but still punch it to the outfield. Hosmer’s legs flew backward, his torso forward, and the ability to maintain control of the bat through all that movement is rare, even among big leaguers.

“At that point,” Royals pitcher Chris Young said, “it’s not as much about form as function.”

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Hosmer takes this stuff personally. The Royals took him with the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, technically the second under general manager Dayton Moore’s watch.

He was a phenom from the beginning, bullying his way to the big leagues before the organization had planned because he was hitting .439 as a 21-year-old in Class AAA.

His first night in the big leagues, Hosmer faced the toughest lefty he’d seen in his life to that point — Gio Gonzalez made the All-Star team that season and the next — and he took a walk. His calm was obvious. The expectations were huge.

Hosmer had his struggles, of course. He hit .232 in his second season, and the occasional struggles of Hosmer and some of the other young players made the team’s hitting coach a temporary position for a while.

But he is now very much at the core of what the defending American League champions do and hope to do. His face was on the Sports Illustrated cover last fall, mid bat flip.

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It wasn’t by coincidence that Hosmer was the one inviting Kansas City to the bar last year, and it’s not by accident that you see him answering questions after every game, win or lose, always saying the right thing.

“We feed off the energy the crowd gives us,” he said after this game. “We love playing here. That’s important to us.”

Hosmer’s moment was symbolic in another way, too. The night before, the Royals didn’t help themselves, but they also ran into some bad breaks. Their line drives went into the Astros’ gloves. The Astros’ bloops landed on the outfield grass. It was, in many ways, the exact opposite of the Royals’ run to last year’s World Series.

Hosmer’s bloop ended all of that. He was beat, but he ended up winning anyway. It was the softest ball he hit all day, and his teammates think it was the most important ball any of them hit all day.

The Star's Andy McCullough details a big win for the Royals in Game 2 of their American League Division Series against the Astros and what it means for the rest of the series, which shifts to Houston on Sunday.

Jonny Gomes’ locker is near Moustakas’, and in the happy chaos of the winning clubhouse, he stood off to the side in a towel as a herd of reporters went through their questions.

He had a moment to kill, so he watched the video of Hosmer’s hit, heard the stat about how rare it was for a pitch that far off the plate to be turned into a hit, and shook his head.

“I’ve probably had zero hits on that,” he said. “I always say this. When the playoffs start, take the numbers out, truly, because you’re going to see something you’ve never seen. Something that hasn’t happened that year. You’ll see guys who are .090 against lefties, and then they hit two (expletive) homers.

“It’s just all about having a dude touch the dish. However possible.”

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