The former and current third basemen paused Tuesday afternoon outside the room housing the indoor batting cages at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Suddenly, the veteran unleashed that jovial roar so familiar to Royals fans.
“Tonight’s the night!” George Brett boomed. “Right, Tank? And payback’s a …” (Apparently, payback is somehow connected to Oedipal issues. Who knew?)
But this is a Hall of Famer talking, one of the game’s premier hitters of all time, so Mike Moustakas nodded while extending his hand for a knuckle handshake to acknowledge the wisdom before heading into the cages.
That night, Moustakas had his first multi-hit game in over two weeks. On Wednesday, he collected two more hits. The last time he had successive multiple-hit games was last Sept. 1-2.
Therein lies the hope that maybe, just maybe, the tide is finally turning for Moustakas, a former first-round draft pick long viewed as a cornerstone in the Royals’ reconstruction efforts.
“I’m starting to believe in myself again,” he said. “I’m starting to become what I used to be as a hitter. I’ve been trying to get back to who I am as a hitter instead of trying to do things I’m not used to doing.
“I’m trying to get back to driving the ball to the right side. Staying focused on the middle but using my strength to that pull side of the field.”
It’s hard to remember now, but a year ago at this time, Moustakas was viewed as an All-Star candidate. He was batting .274 when summer officially arrived and had 10 homers and 33 RBIs.
Moustakas remained a viable power threat into mid-July before, inexplicably, everything turned sour. He batted .202 over the final 64 games with just four homers and 24 RBIs.
This season was even worse.
Prior to Tuesday, he was batting .183 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 58 games. The combined math is appalling: 122 games, a .193 average with eight homers and 36 RBIs in 435 at-bats.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Moustakas emerged as the whipping boy with the public for a struggling offense, and even the club’s broadcasters criticized his body language as suggesting a lack of effort.
The social media — but not just the social media — raged with demands that he be sent to the minors. Moustakas admits he wondered whether he’d get booted back to Triple-A Omaha.
“Of course,” he said. “You know, when you’re struggling, not producing the way you want to produce, there’s always that thought in the back of your mind. You don’t want it to be there, but it’s there.”
Through it all, the Royals remained — and continue to remain — supportive.
Manager Ned Yost preached patience by insisting young players with Moustakas’ skills eventually “get it.” Yost also pointed to the lack of a viable alternative, which produced the now oft-quoted “third baseman tree” jibe.
General manager Dayton Moore maintained Moustakas’ development required exposure to big-league pitchers while saying a demotion would only be warranted if his confidence waned.
Moustakas remained outwardly strong as the criticism surged, but sure, he now admits, his confidence took a battering.
“I can’t lie about that,” he said. “It was down. It wasn’t too far down because everybody in that clubhouse kept boosting me.
“If 24 other guys on your team are telling you you’re going to be all right — and of the coaching staff has your back, too — it’s hard to get too low. And my family believes in me just as much as anybody.
“It’s hard to get too low with your confidence with all of that. But, absolutely, my confidence was definitely down for a while.”
Eventually, however, the Royals had to do something. They just couldn’t watch as Moustakas and first baseman Eric Hosmer, their other high-drafted cornerstone, continued to squander their potential.
The move came May 30 in St. Louis when the Royals replaced hitting coaches Jack Maloof and Andre David with Brett and Pedro Grifol.
The move required, first of all, Brett’s willingness to assume the role — even on an interim basis — but finding a way, some way, to unlock Moustakas and Hosmer was the organization’s preeminent concern.
“We’ve got to work the mental part of it, too,” Moore said. “We need someone to help these guys mature mentally right now.”
That is Brett’s role in the equation.
Grifol handles the video study and organizes the drills, but it is Brett, with his Hall of Fame pedigree, whose words carry weight, particularly when he vividly recounts his owns struggles as a young player.
“I don’t think anybody is as desperate as I was when I was 20 years old and hitting .210 at the All-Star break,” Brett said. “Nobody on our team is that desperate.
“Moose was a little out of whack. That’s all. He’s making progress. I mean, he’s really making progress. If you ask Moose, he’ll tell you he feels good. Now, he gets frustrated in the game when it doesn’t work.”
If Brett tells you you’re making progress as a hitter ... who is not going to believe that?
“It’s helped a ton,” Moustakas agreed. “They’ve scrapped everything. We had a talk, and we talked about what got me here. Who am I as a player? I’m Mike Moustakas, and I hit the ball to right field and right center.
“I’m not a singles guy who hits balls to left. I drive the baseball, and that’s what I’m trying to get back to doing. Getting a good downward angle on the ball and backspinning it into the gaps.”
Ask Brett what he sees in Moustakas that, at least prior to Tuesday, was less than obvious to nearly everyone else, and he quickly counter-punches with an answer.
“It’s a process,” Brett said, “and I think progress has been made with Moose. When we got here and watched Moose hit, he couldn’t hit a home run — even in BP.
“And (the other day), he hit about 10. So progress is being made. Fans don’t know that. They look at the box score and see oh-for-three. They don’t see an eight-pitch at-bat and fouling off tough pitches.”
Brett and Grifol tweaked Hosmer’s swing, a shift in hand position, and saw immediate results. Hosmer is batting .300 over the last 20 games. The next step for him is renewed power. Signs there, too, are encouraging.
Fixing Moustakas has been a slower process that, until the last two games, saw little in terms of positive in-game results. This much is certain, though, Moustakas believes he’s on the right track. Brett is winning the mind game.
“My hands feel so much freer, so much looser,” Moustakas said. “And that’s my strength, my hands. They’re quick, and I can get them through the zone. That’s where I generate my power from.
“Pedro is all over me about it, to stop using my body; just use my hands. He’s constantly in my ear. George is the same way. Get your good pitch, stay down and through it.
“It’s awesome that each one of those guys is in my ear and telling me what I need to do. And I can understand it from them.
“There have been minimal results so far on the field. But in batting practice, balls are jumping off my bat like they haven’t been lately. I’m hitting line drives consistently. It just feels good. I feel like myself again.”
Maybe payback is on the horizon. Whatever it is.