Billy Butler took stock and braced for high heat Tuesday night in the eighth inning after ducking away from an up-and-in fastball earlier in the count from Chicago reliever Nate Jones.
“Especially with the way that at-bat started off,” Butler said, “with almost getting hit in the head. I definitely saw my life flash in front of me for a second. You see a 99-mile-an-hour heater come up in there.
“I know it wasn’t on purpose but, still, when it gets that close, it’s uncomfortable.”
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Butler crushed another 99-mph fastball for a two-run homer that cemented the Royals’ 5-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.
“I was geared up for a heater when a guy throws that hard,” Butler acknowledged. “It was out over the plate, and I put the barrel on it. Honestly, when a guy throws that hard, he’s supplying the power.”
It was Butler’s club-leading 22nd homer and eclipsed his previous best of 21 in 2009.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “I guess I’m getting more backspin. I’m definitely stronger, and it might be me coming into my prime. I know I worked hard this off-season. I feel I’m the strongest I’ve ever been.”
Butler’s bomb capped a night that saw the Royals get solid pitching – yes-s-s-s, as they say around here – and twice rally back from one-run deficits against Chicago starter Jake Peavy.
“Peavy was untouchable for the first (five) innings,” manager Ned Yost said. “I was beginning to wonder if we were going to do anything with him. I was just hoping we could get his pitch count up and get him out of there.”
The Royals has only one hit through five innings before pulling even, briefly, by scoring once in the sixth. After Chicago regained the lead later in the inning, the Royals knocked out Peavy in a two-run seventh.
Tony Abreu and Alex Gordon delivered RBI singles for a 3-2 lead.
“He’s a guy who is going to keep you off-balance,” Gordon said, “by throwing you a lot of different pitches. You get into hitters’ counts, and he’s going to flip a slider up there. He keeps you off-balance.”
Butler’s bomb in the eighth came on a 1-1 fastball after Jones replaced Leyson Septimo following Mike Moustakas’ leadoff walk.
Royals starter Bruce Chen (8-9) altered his approach after a series of disappointing outings. It didn’t start well – Gordon Beckham opened the first with a homer – but Chen soon found a groove.
“After he hit the home run,” Chen said, “Brayan (Peña) came out and said to me, `You know what? You’re looking good. Keep doing what you’re doing, and we’re going to be OK.’”
The difference was Chen made it an emphasis to establish his fastball early in the game. It’s no wowser; it generally tops out at 89 mph, but it offers a contrast to his off-speed repertoire.
“All he’s been doing,” Yost said, “is throwing 82-83 (mph) and trying to get control down, but he’s got nothing to speed the bats up. They sit soft. After his last start, we talked about the necessity of him coming out and establishing his fastball.
“It’s an 87-89 mph fastball, but that gives him something to speed up their bats so that he can then slow them down. He can slow teams down with the best of them, but he can’t do it unless he speeds them up first.”
Chen limited the White Sox to two runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 innings.
Kelvin Herrera followed by retiring four straight hitters – three on strikeouts – before Greg Holland protected the three-run lead in the ninth for his second save since replacing departed Jonathan Broxton as the club's closer.
Suddenly, the Royals show signs of August life, with four victories in seven games, after effectively wrecking their season with a 7-19 stumble through July that resulted in a shakeup in the roster and coaching staff.
“I’ll tell you this,” right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. “You can look around here, and the demeanor of the team is in a good spot.”
Peavy (9-8) began the game by walking Gordon and Chris Getz, and then fell behind Moustakas 1-0 and 2-1 before battling back for a strikeout. The inning collapsed. Butler flied to left, and Francoeur struck out.
Chicago then took a 1-0 lead when Beckham crunched a full-court fastball for a leadoff homer. It was Beckham’s tie-breaking homer in the eighth Monday that lifted the White Sox to a 4-2 victory in the series opener.
The Royals got even after Gordon opened the sixth inning with a single. He stole second when Getz swung through an apparent hit-and-run play and moved to third on Getz’s grounder to second.
Moustakas tied the game with a sacrifice fly to medium right, but Chen started the Chicago sixth by walking Beckham. It was Beckham’s first walk since July 17, and he quickly reached second on a wild pitch.
Alexei Ramirez’s grounder to second moved Beckham to third and prompted the Royals to shorten their infield. Adam Dunn punched a clean single into center on a belt-high fastball for a 2-1 lead.
The Royals answered with a two-run seventh, which Francoeur started with a bunt single – only the fourth bunt base-hit of his career.
“The last two weeks,” Francoeur said, “we’ve been working on it. We’re down 2-1, and I looked at the third baseman (Ray Olmedo), and he’s (almost) playing on the (outfield) grass. Why not try to get on base?”
Francoeur went to third on Eric Hosmer’s one-out single through the right side.
Abreu tied the game with a line single to left-center, but left fielder Dayan Viciedo made a terrific throw to third that nailed Hosmer. Abreu took second on the throw and reached third when Jarrod Dyson beat out an infield single.
When Gordon roped a single into center, the Royals had a 3-2 lead.
“I got big on my first swing,” Gordon said, “when (Peavy) gave me a good pitch to hit. After that I got a little more simple (in approach) and just put a good swing on it. We did a good job of putting innings together. Then Billy with the big home run late.”