In the span of one magical postseason, the Royals morphed from the haunted to the hunted.
This a fascinating new context for them, unknown to this franchise and its fans for about 30 years — and perhaps intensified by the emotional abandon with which they play.
“I know that people want to beat us bad,” pitcher Danny Duffy said. “That’s great. That’s what we’ve been working for here.”
But with a caveat.
Intentionally inflicted or not, coincidences notwithstanding, being on the absorbing end of a carnival shooting gallery for opposing pitchers and being a pin cushion for cleats of an overzealous slide starts to bubble up.
So when Lorenzo Cain was hit by a pitch for the third time this season during the first inning against Oakland on Sunday at Kauffman Stadium, it didn’t merely mark the 14th time a Royals player had been plunked this season.
It marked enough is enough.
It was the breaking point on extending benefit of the doubt for all the stray pitches and turning the other cheek and turning the page — as the Royals thought they had done on Saturday when pitcher Yordano Ventura hit Oakland’s Brett Lawrie in retaliation for the unnecessarily hostile slide into Alcides Escobar on Friday.
“We thought,” Duffy said, “it was settled.”
Not by a long stretch, as it happened, and this may all bode plenty more to come this season.
But on Sunday it all set the scene for a delirious, mesmerizing game before 36,755, a 4-2 Royals victory that proved testament to the resolve of a team depleted by injuries to three starters (including second baseman Omar Infante on Sunday) and its closer, and a spree of ejections.
Maybe they don’t call them “statement” games this early in a season, but with a little wiggle room for some excess, this one said something important about this team as it extended its run of dramatic affairs with the A’s.
“We’ve got a team that’s not going to back down,” Cain said.
That was on display in many forms Sunday, including some bordering on farcical.
By the time the riled Royals rallied to win with a three-run eighth inning, five of them had been ejected, including the injured Escobar, reliever Kelvin Herrera, manager Ned Yost and coaches Dave Eiland and Don Wakamatsu — whom Yost with some amusement believed was ousted twice by different umpires.
Something in all this commotion seemed to both gall and galvanize the Royals, whose comeback was triggered — willed, even — by the irrepressible Cain.
His eighth-inning double knocked in Paulo Orlando to tie the game 2-2, and he went on to score the game-winning run with Eric Hosmer following him in on Kendrys Morales’ double.
No doubt Cain appreciated the poetic justice of his contribution.
“No one likes getting hit,” said Cain, who after being hit in the foot had an exasperated look of “not again” on his face. “It doesn’t feel good.”
As it turns out, people don’t like almost being hit, either.
But per baseball’s arcane unwritten rules, someone was going to pay for Scott Kazmir hitting Cain.
And who more convenient than poor Lawrie?
He had set all the turbulence of this series in motion on Friday but had all reason to believe his indiscretion had been reconciled on Saturday, when he sportingly accepted the pitch that hit him and went to first without so much as looking at Ventura.
He was less understanding Sunday when Herrera ably earned his ejection by unleashing a 99 mph fastball behind Lawrie’s back.
Afterward, Herrera unconvincingly said he had lost his grip on the ball.
“It’s just embarrassing; I’m just trying to play baseball, and I can’t step into the (batter’s) box without thinking that they have seven guys in the bullpen or whatever it is that can almost touch 100,” Lawrie said, later adding: “You don’t throw behind someone and then walk away when you throw 100 miles an hour and say that the next time I face you I’m going to hit you in the head. That’s (wrong). …
“He needs to pay for that. That ain’t OK. This is a game. This isn’t going up there and trying to hurt people.”
Herrera would say his gesture was less ominous, or at least less specifically ominous: “Think about it,” was how he put it.
If you’re a Royals fan, maybe you’re disposed to automatically backing Herrera’s action.
But the truth is, whatever team you favor, there is something frightening about the implications of his execution of the reprisal.
That ball can go into Lawrie’s ribs, yes, but not in the danger zone that behind him represents.
Yet the truth is, whether he hit Cain on purpose or not, unwittingly or not, this can of worms was pried open by Kazmir.
He denied doing it on purpose, saying that anyone with a feel for the game would know you don’t throw intentionally at someone’s feet. And Cain said Kazmir asked him whether he was OK.
Still, it’s hard not to note that 73 of Kazmir’s 103 pitches were strikes and that he didn’t issue a base on balls until the eighth inning.
Mostly, though, this was mostly about critical mass on the other end and responding with a dramatic rally.
At some point, no deniability is all that plausible.
“I’m tired of seeing my brothers with bruises,” Duffy said, later adding, “I’m not saying that’s not part of the game, but when you take as many in the ribs or the leg as we have, it raises eyebrows.”
In this case, aside from Herrera’s debatable target area, it also raised their game as they improved to 9-3.
“I’m very, very proud of the way that they rallied; there was a lot of stuff that happened today,” said Yost, who joked that he had slept in his office after being ejected in the first inning. “And you can just tell the energy and the life on our team that they were a little riled up.”
Not daunted but steeled by it.
Not rattled but composed.
It’s a fine sign of how they embrace their new status, but it’s also a sort of second skin they’re likely to have to continue to call on.
“Clearing benches all the time, having to run in (from the outfield) all the time, it’s draining. It takes energy out of you,” Cain said, smiling. “Right now, I just want to take a little break.”
Good luck with that.
“We’re going to fight,” Duffy said, “for what we think is right.”
To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com
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