Vahe Gregorian

After 1,691 games, Royals outfielder Alex Rios will finally get to experience postseason

Royals outfielder Alex Rios has never played in the postseason, but that will end on Thursday night.
Royals outfielder Alex Rios has never played in the postseason, but that will end on Thursday night. The Kansas City Star

Through 1,691 games and 6,929 plate appearances in 12 seasons of Major League Baseball at age 34, it might be surmised that Alex Rios has absorbed about every experience in the game.

And then some, if you consider his quirky 2015 adventure alone:

After an auspicious start, Rios suffered a broken bone in his left hand after being hit by a pitch he suggested was part of a “recipe for disaster” out of a young pitcher. It left him out almost seven weeks and rendered him ineffective upon a return that arguably was premature.

Figuratively cast into isolation by fans and critics as he grappled to get back to the promising form he’d flashed early, Rios then literally spent time in quarantine after being diagnosed with chicken pox.

“I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” said Rios, the Royals right fielder who has lifted his average from .197 on June 13 to .255. “ ‘I’ve never seen (blisters erupt) before.’ 

For all Rios has observed and encountered in the game, though, he’ll witness something else he’s never seen before when the Royals begin postseason play Thursday at Kauffman Stadium against the winner of the American League Wild Card Game between Houston and the New York Yankees.

That would be himself as part of a playoff game, thus ending the longest drought among active players.

The closest he’s come before was playing for the Rangers in a Game 163 as they tried and failed to sneak into the playoffs in 2013.

“It’s something that has crossed my mind many times throughout my career,” Rios said last week at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. “I think that that is the main goal for a baseball player, for any athlete, to make it to the playoffs and win it all. …

“And to experience it with this bunch of guys makes it special, makes it memorable, you know?”

The breakthrough helps account for why the Royals were the choice of Rios, who has been in the AL his entire career with Toronto, the White Sox and Texas.

He was signed by Kansas City in the offseason to a one-year, $11-million deal with a mutual option for 2016.

“I saw the evolution of this (franchise) from playing against them for many years,” said Rios, who was particularly struck by the 2014 version that rocketed to Game 7 of the World Series before succumbing to San Francisco. “I thought it would be a good chance to at least experience the playoffs, and it paid off well.”

In good measure because of matters out of his apparent control, the dividends of his acquisition have been murkier for the Royals.

The most significant accounting points, of course, remain ahead in his playoff debut.

It all seemed to mesh so well early as Rios sought to quash lingering questions about an injury-riddled, power-zapped 2014 season in which he had four home runs in 492 at-bats after hitting 161 in his previous 10 seasons.

In the first inning of the Royals’ first spring training game, Rios was part of a back-to-back-to-back home run spree started by Eric Hosmer and finished by Kendrys Morales that hinted the Royals might bust out of their feeble MLB-low production of 2014, when they hit 95. (In fact, they hit 139 this season.)

When Rios homered on opening day, the Royals instantly had as many home runs (one) as they had all last season out of the man he replaced, Nori Aoki.

In his first seven games, Rios’ batting line was a robust .321/.345/.464.

Everything became warped, though, in that seventh game when Rios became the 12th Royal to be hit by a pitch at that point in the season.

With the bases loaded in the eighth inning, Minnesota reliever J.R. Graham’s 93-mph fastball smashed the fifth metacarpal in Rios’ left hand.

“It’s very frustrating when you get inexperienced pitchers coming to the mound and showing a lot of energy, and not being able to control their emotions,” Rios said then. “I think that’s a recipe for disaster, when you have guys like that, high-energy guys without being able to control their emotions. Then you put them in high-pressure situations, and they just don’t know what to do, I guess.”

Eager to return, Rios ultimately had to contend with a confounding dilemma.

“If you wait until the pain’s gone, it’s going to take you forever to come back,” said Rios, who still has an unsightly bump on his hand but it says he seldom feels its impact any more. “It’s bone, and bone has to have time to heal. These kinds of injuries, you’re going to feel some residual pain.

“So then it’s all about pain management.”

Had he waited longer, perhaps Rios wouldn’t have gone into as deep a funk as the one that left him four for 40 in his first weeks back and perhaps inhibited him further even thereafter.

“Overall, it affects your mechanics, your approach to the plate, and if your mechanics are affected you can’t function at the same level that you do when you’re in a normal state,” he said. “I’m not using this as an excuse, but it’s something people should understand when it comes to injuries, especially hand injuries.”

Plenty of people didn’t understand, of course, and advocated for Rios to be benched.

Maybe it hurt his cause, too, that he is an average defender and plays with such a cool demeanor as to appear casual.

But operating in the fuzzy zone of blind faith, hunch and conviction that he seems to navigate more nimbly all the time, Royals manager Ned Yost reckoned the thing to do was to let it play out and see if Rios gained traction as he further distanced himself from the injury.

“It just took him a long time to get his tempo and to get his rhythm at the plate,” Yost said. “That’s why we kept running him out there, running him out there. Got a glimpse in spring training” of what he could produce.

So there Rios suddenly was, in 24 games from Aug. 19 to Sept. 25 hitting .382/.584/.971 with eight doubles, two triples and two home runs.

Even with the pesky chicken pox sidelining him (along with reliever Kelvin Herrera) for about 10 days in between.

From out of nowhere anyone has determined — or disclosed, anyway.

“We’re exposed to so many people all the time; it’s tough to actually know where you got it from,” said Rios, who didn’t so much as leave his apartment for a week.

Still, he feels fortunate it wasn’t worse.

The initial expectation was he might be out several weeks, and he was warned adult symptoms can be more debilitating than in adolescents.

“It can get complicated,” he said. “But the good thing is I didn’t have any fever, I didn’t have any symptoms besides the lesions and stuff.

“So that was a positive about that negative.”

Now Rios has a chance to frame the postseason the same way, a chance to trump a season of oddities and questions with an exclamation point.

Perhaps fittingly enough, he’ll go into it with another change in fortune, having only two hits in his last 29 at-bats.

Still, he says, “I think it’s coming to life at the right time.”

Considering the whole strange 2015 journey, he smiled and added, “It could be a good story at the end.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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