SURPRISE, Ariz. — The cry echoed through the mostly empty complex, a product of a sneaky two-seam fastball from Royals starter Jason Vargas and an ill-fated swing from first baseman Eric Hosmer.
“Oww,” Hosmer yelled.
The pitch jammed Hosmer and a sting reverberated through his hands. The ball dunked into shallow center. As he walked toward the field, James Shields heckled Hosmer. The event occurred during an early-day session of live batting practice, which pitted team’s two top starting pitchers against three qualified hitters, a 20-minute glimpse into the readiness of their rotation.
The previous incarnations of batting practice defined anti-climax. On Friday morning, the cast added to the entertainment. The three hitters were Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Justin Maxwell. “Bringing the squad out today,” said Wade Davis, who came out early to watch.
Like all things here in camp, the schedule was efficient: Each pitcher threw a pair of 15-pitch innings. Each hitter saw five pitches at a time. The drill started three minutes early, at 9:12 a.m., when Vargas caught a warmup from backup catcher Brett Hayes and said “Brett, you can just call it, man.”
Vargas represents this organization’s offseason splurge. When the team decided a reunion with Ervin Santana looked too costly, they pounced on Vargas with a four-year, $32 million deal. Vargas lacks sizzle: He doesn’t miss an excessive amount of bats and his fastball velocity hangs in the mid 80s.
But team officials believe a strike-throwing, flyball pitcher will perform well within the spacious confines of Kauffman Stadium, especially backed by their elite defense. Their doctors also deemed anomalous the blood clot in Vargas’ left shoulder that required surgery and sidelined him for 47 games.
“Vargas is going to be a big pickup for us,” manager Ned Yost said. “He’s a guy that throws strikes, changes speeds, a great competitor. Knows how to pitch.”
With Shields, there is more certainty. He anchored this rotation in 2013. He is expected to repeat the feat. After 15 pitches, Vargas plotted strategy with Hayes while Shields warmed up. He looked sharp from the start, Hosmer said, mixing backdoor cutters and diving two-seamers.
When Maxwell fanned on a fastball, he mentioned to Perez the pitch moved like a changeup. Perez couldn’t help himself. He removed his mask and shouted at Shields.
“I called a fastball,” Perez said, managing to hide a smile. “And you threw a changeup.”
Shields couldn’t tell if Maxwell was complimenting the movement or insulting his velocity. “Changeup?” Shields said. “It’s just a two-seam dream.”
The hitters behind the cage cackled. Shields dusted his next one in the dirt. “Now that’s a changeup,” he said, a punch line that delighted his teammates.
As Vargas worked through his second inning, Shields slipped behind the dugout’s chain-link fence. A visitor soon arrived: Bill Fischer, the organization’s senior pitching adviser. Fischer turned 83 last October. This is his 67th year in professional baseball.
“That’s the best I’ve ever seen you throw,” he said.
Shields thanked Fischer, and took the compliment in stride. “Let’s not peak too early, Fish,” he said, and as Vargas finished up, walked out of the dugout. “If you can pitch nine innings in live B.P.,” Shields said, “you can pitch anywhere.”
The conditions are far from normal. For batters, the atmosphere feels uncomfortable. The protective screen on the mound distorts the hitter’s vision. The batting cage invites claustrophobia. But the misery pays dividends, Hosmer explained later.
“When you can get looks off those guys, and those are your first looks of the spring, it’s pretty good,” he said.
After Shields threw his last pitch, he joked that he could toss another full session. The hitters gathered with the pitchers and catchers to bump fists and offer congratulations.
“Now let’s go take B.P.,” Moustakas said. “So …”
“So we can correct it,” Hosmer finished.