The best inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places.
On Thursday, Omar Infante provided the Royals their offensive spark, driving home seven of their eight runs in a upping of the Indians. Six games into this road trip, the team had won just twice. They had scored more than four runs just twice in their previous nine. The Central has been locked up for the longest time, but the Royals have been sputtering and wheezing to the finish line.
They needed a kick in the ass. Some positive propulsion, to snap them out of their September malaise.
The juice came from the bat of Infante. And it was glorious.
You remember Infante? The albatross of the Royals offense. The worst offensive everyday position player in baseball in 2015. They guy who (thankfully) lost his starting job? Yeah, that Infante.
All he did was blast a three-run home run to left in the second, lace a two-run double in the fifth, and knock a two-run single in the seventh. The way Infante has been going all season, that was a month’s worth of production in just one game.
They split the four-game set with Cleveland, and suddenly, even though it’s still a losing road trip at this moment, things don’t seem so awful anymore.
The lift in mood was also helped by a gritty performance from Yordano Ventura. Yeah, I went there. Gritty. It’s not a word you often hear associated with a young, Latin player, but it fit his outing. At different points Ventura battled Indians hitters, his command, the strike zone of the home plate umpire, and even his own defense.
There were still plenty of moments of concern for the right-hander. Twice, he failed to back up bases, and his spectating in the third cost him a run when Perez couldn’t come up with a throw from Ben Zobrist in left that went all the way to the backstop. That cut the Royals lead to 3-2 at the time and it looked like the wheels were in the process of falling off.
Much has been made about Ventura’s struggles once he lost his aggressiveness following the April kerfuffles. Worried about his reputation he was developing as a pitcher who sometimes threw at hitters on purpose, he lost a bit of his edge and stopped throwing on the inner part of the plate, which is an area he needs to command if he’s going to be his most successful. On Thursday, that part of his game was taken literally out of play by a home plate umpire who refused to call a strike on a pitch on the inner third to a left-handed batter. From Brooks Baseball, here is the plot of called pitches to lefties.
You could make the argument that the width of the zone was fine, but Ventura needed to adjust. That’s not how the game needs to be played. Not when the zone is that awful. If Ventura goes to the outer half, he’s going to get clobbered. And if he tries to find the inner edge of the zone, there’s little lateral margin for error.
This isn’t to blame Ventura’s struggles solely on the umpire. Ventura clearly let the poor calls effect his game. Credit goes to Perez, pitching coach Dave Eiland and just about everyone else on the infield who rallied around their starter. They made sure he kept his head in the game and his focus on the next batter. It didn’t always work the way it should of (see his aforementioned failure to back up bases a couple of times) but together, they were able to keep him in the game for six innings. Sometimes, even in baseball, it takes a village.
Your other hitting star of the evening was the man ahead of Infante, Alex Rios. In the small sample size of 35 plate appearances covering the nine games since he returned from the chicken pox, Rios has hit .375/.400/.688 with six extra base hits. His latest performance inspired the following tweet from your’s truly:
From tonight’s Department of Deal With It: Alex Rios is your October RF. #Royals
— Craig Brown (@royalsauthority) September 18, 2015
It’s true. Just like two good weeks at leadoff last September meant we saw “Alcides Escobar, Leadoff Hitter” for the next year, nine good games have secured the starting spot of one Alex Rios for the next month-plus. Hopefully, he can continue to produce. I’m not asking (or looking) for too much. How about just around a major league average right fielder? That would be an improvement over what we’ve seen the previous five months. It seems like every October success has a contribution from an unexpected source. For the Royals last year, maybe that was Mike Moustakas’ power output. (I know… He’s supposed to hit for power. But check his monthly splits. He rarely hit as many as five home runs in a single month.) Maybe this year, Rios stays at least lukewarm through the playoffs. That would be a good thing.
And speaking of playoffs, yes, despite the speed bump that has been September, this team is still qualifying for the postseason. This isn’t in doubt. On Thursday it was Rios, Infante, and Ventura. Friday, it will probably be a different trio to lead this team. That’s why they are so dangerous. And if they can pull out of this September swoon (which I think they can) they can be a dangerous team again in October.
The Royals magic number is six.