USA TODAY US Edition
Royals romp, take 3-1 lead
Escobar, Young, Rios keep Kansas City winning
Blue Jays pushed to the brink in ALCS after 14-2 loss,
The leadoff hitter rarely reaches base and has told the world he’ll always hack at the game’s first pitch.
The starter is a towering righthander who didn’t throw a single pitch 90 mph and allowed more fly balls than any other pitcher in baseball.
The right fielder had the sport’s worst offensive production at one of its premium offensive positions.
These are the Kansas City Royals, whose methods are openly unconventional but whose results are unquestioned.
Alcides Escobar has led off all four games of the American League Championship Series with a base hit — Tuesday’s single sparked a four-run inning highlighted by Ben Zobrist’s home run — while Chris Young held the vaunted Toronto Blue Jays lineup to three hits and two runs and Alex Rios went 3-for-3 with a home run.
This trio is more anomalous than archetypal, but their efforts led to the Royals crushing the Blue Jays 14-2 to lead three games to one in the series and move within a win of a return trip to the World Series.
“Obviously we’ve got a good chance to be back at the big dance, but you’ve got to realize the ballclub we’re playing over there,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “It’s a team that can explode at any time. We’ve got to continue to keep our foot on the gas and try to seal up this last win.”
Most managers now understand the value of on-base percentage superseding speed at the top of the order, yet Royals skipper Ned Yost continues writing Escobar’s name atop his lineup card for the simplest reason: “It works.” Never mind that Escobar had the lowest on-base percentage among any regular leadoff hitter; he reached base in nine of his first 15 plate appearances this series — all without the aid of a walk.
“Statistically speaking, it doesn’t make any sense,” Yost has admitted.
This season, the Royals were 82-49 (.626) when Escobar led off and 13-18 (.419) when he didn’t; when Kansas City needed a strong finish to clinch home-field advantage, Escobar returned to the No. 1 spot for the last five games of the regular season — all wins — and now a 6-3 postseason record.
Amplifying the absurdity is the superstition that Escobar has been instructed to swing at every first offering of the first inning. Escobar has explained, “Always I swing the first pitch,” at the behest of hitting coach Dale Sveum. The result is immaterial. He swung and missed in Game 4, for instance, but later singled.
“I want to go to the home plate and be aggressive,” Escobar said, “trying to swing at the strike.”
By the second inning, Rios had also homered for the visitors, Escobar was hit by a pitch and Lorenzo Cain walked, ending R.A. Dickey’s day before he could record six outs. Dickey had a 1.94 ERA in his final eight home starts, but seven of the 12 batters he faced reached base, as they adhered to the adage about squaring a falling knuckleball: “Up high, let it fly; down low, let it go.”
The Royals kept picking away at the bullpen, too: Escobar added a late-game RBI single and two sacrifice flies, half of their postseason-record four on the day.
Young exited one out shy of qualifying for a win — a “somewhat ridiculous stat,” he later quipped — but his 42⁄3 innings of two-run ball was more than ample distance for the Royals’ vaunted bullpen to preserve the victory.
It’s a remarkable return on investment for an early March signing for an incentive-laden contract with a $675,000 base.
“We were three weeks into spring training, and CY shows up randomly,” Hosmer said, “and he’s pitching Game 4.”
Young, 6-11 and 36 and pitching for his eighth organization, never once lit up a first-digit ‘9’ on the radar gun in 2,048 pitches this season and didn’t on any of his 78 deliveries on this afternoon, either. Even Blue Jays infielder Cliff Pennington — who pitched part of the ninth inning — touched 91.
Armed with a high-80s fastball and a good-enough slider, however, Young worked low in the zone and kept Toronto off-balance.
“The guys went out and set the tone with the bats early and gave me room for error,” Young said, “and from there it allowed me to be aggressive and turn it over to the bullpen, which is just lights-out.”
Rios, who until this month was the longest-tenured active bigleaguer without a postseason appearance (1,691 games), batted .255 with four home runs for a .640 OPS that was the third worst in the last quarter-century of any right fielder with 400 plate appearances.
“I told him before the game, ‘You’re going to have a great game today,’ ” Yost said. “I don’t know why I felt it. But he sure did.”
Some of the Royals’ success isn’t entirely explicable, but it sure keeps happening.