Christmas came early for the Royals’ new toys at the top of the order
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The new toys at the top logged 10 plate appearances, got on base seven times, collected six hits, two runs, a double, and walk. No wonder Eric Hosmer was smiling Friday night like Santa just left a stinking Ferrari under his tree.
"That’s definitely how they drew it up," the Kansas City Royals’ first baseman said of the new No. 1 and No. 2 hitters in front of him in the lineup, who went a combined 6-for-9 in a 7-5 win over the Chicago White Sox. "I can already notice those guys — (Nori) Aoki and (Omar) Infante, those guys are getting on base and setting the table."
It’s not that Royals leadoff hitters were bad last year. It’s just that they weren’t, well, shall we say, suited for that all-important table-setting role. Whether it was Alex Gordon or David Lough or Chris Getz, the hitters in the No. 1 hole combined to hit .246 in 2013 with a .309 collective OBP — the fourth-lowest on-base spot in the entire order. The No. 2 slot was a little better at .275 and .322, respectively, but for an athletic lineup that plays gap to gap, base to base, the more rabbits in front of you on the basepaths, irritating pitchers and opening up holes in the infield, the merrier.
"I think that we’re going to be a better offensive team this year," designated hitter Billy Butler, the Royals’ cleanup hitter, noted after the club’s home-opening win and first victory of the season. "That’s what we showed (Friday).
"We could have scored more runs than we did. I mean, I think you can say that every night. If you can say every night that you scored seven, (that’s) a good day."
And Friday was a good day, thermometers notwithstanding. The temperature of record for the home opener at Kauffman Stadium was 46 degrees. Unofficially, it was six degrees colder than a witch’s armpit.
"If there was no wind out there," said Butler, who was 1-for-3 and walked twice, "it would’ve been better."
While Butler defrosted at one end of the home clubhouse, Aoki — the Japanese import acquired over the winter in a trade with Milwaukee — beamed at the other. He had come in to the season’s first homestand with nine at-bats, no hits, three strikeouts, and several nagging questions.
After three hits and a walk in five trips against the White Sox, those questions were pretty much gone.
"Just getting that first hit out of the way was important," said Aoki, a career .285 hitter in the majors as of Friday morning, said through an interpreter. "And I’d like to keep continuing doing the same thing."
When a reporter asked if that meant 200 or so more hits to go, the outfielder just laughed.
"I mean, I don’t really think about it that way," he said. "I just feel that it’s just (about) a team win, and I’m just glad that we won (Friday)."
"You know, I’m always kind of nervous before every game," Aoki said. "But it’s a good nervousness, I’d say."
Offered Butler: "Those guys can hit; that doesn’t surprise me at all. They just set the tone."
And right from the start, too. In the bottom of the first, with the Royals trailing, 1-0, Aoki whistled a shot off the glove of diving first baseman Jose Abreu. With the right fielder pushing out to a lead off of first base, Infante followed with a textbook single in the hole between first and second and into short right. Both would eventually score on Alex Gordon’s three-run double into the gap in deep right-center, giving the hosts a lead they would never relinquish.
"Oh, man," Hosmer said, flashing that Christmas grin again. "That’ll work out."
For Infante, this was old hat — Friday was his sixth career three-hit game at The K — but for Aoki, the crowd, the climate, was a different take. He’d played three games here in 2012, as a member of the Brewers, but this was different. In his home debut, Aoki in the eighth inning dropped Tyler Flowers’ fly to short right field, putting the Sox catcher on second base with one out in a two-run game. Fortunately, reliever Wade Davis shut the door after that, striking Adam Eaton out looking and Marcus Semien out looking.
"I don’t feel pressure at all," Aoki said. "I just try to play my game and I feel the results will follow that."
While there was the usual handwringing locally after the ex-Brewer’s 0-for-9 start in Detroit, the 32-year-old outfielder preferred the long view: Before Friday’s contest, Aoki was a career .242 hitter in 44 March/April tilts with a .706 OPS — by far his worst month, collectively, in two-plus seasons in the Show. Traditionally, as the weather warms, so does No. 23.
"The first two games, I feel like I made some mistakes, and that’s why I couldn’t get on base," Aoki said. "So I don’t really think about the opponent and the pitcher."
Like the man said: It’s the good kind of nervousness.
"I think he was excited more than anything," Hosmer noted with a chuckle. "We know how tough it is for a guy coming from a different country, not speaking the language. So we’re consistently communicating with Kosuke (Inaji), his interpreter; we’re consistently getting him involved, keeping him loose, having fun.
"Nori’s a funny man. He really is."
"He’ll randomly just start yelling something, out of nowhere," Hosmer replied. "So, yeah, he fits in well with this group."
Oh, yeah. Dude’s going to fit in jussssssst fine.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.