The crowd around Mike Moustakas thinned and for a moment his guard descended. Minutes before, in the wake of a three-RBI performance in 3-2 victory over Colorado, Moustakas engaged in a subtle protest of reporters.
When asked about his day, Moustakas repeatedly praised starter Jason Vargas. Moustakas would not discuss his own play.
On Tuesday, Moustakas spent the afternoon fending off questions about his potential demotion to Class AAA Omaha, and spent the evening on the bench. On Wednesday, he powered the Royals’ offense to their sixth win in eight games, including a two-game sweep of the Rockies.
He held firm until the five television cameras and most of the reporters departed. Did he take any personal satisfaction out of the turnaround?
“Zero,” Moustakas said. “I come out every day the same way, trying to help the team win a ballgame. Just because of what happened yesterday doesn’t mean I came out to play harder today. I came out the exact same as I always do. I got a couple hits today, and that’s all that matters.”
Then the guard rose again, and he segued into another testimonial about Vargas, 4-1 with a 3.00 ERA. His compliments were not without merit. Vargas set a season high with eight strikeouts across 6 2/3 innings. He departed after giving up a two-run home run to Drew Stubbs in the seventh. Otherwise, he disabled the best offense in baseball, just as James Shields did the day before.
In the ninth, Greg Holland placed the tying run on third base. Then he froze Stubbs with a slider for his 10th save of the season. The victory pushed the Royals, 20-19, back above .500, and helped further erase the memory of last week’s five-game losing streak.
“It’s always fun to be over .500,” outfielder Lorenzo Cain said. “We’ve got to hopefully get over .500 and stay over .500.”
The task continues on Thursday against Baltimore. With left-hander Wei-Yin Chen on the mound, Moustakas probably will return to the bench. But his team needed him on Wednesday. He cracked two doubles, good for his third multihit game of the season. He flashed defensive prowess to aid Vargas in a sixth-inning jam.
In the aftermath, Vargas called Moustakas “clutch.” Moustakas wouldn’t call himself much of anything.
His tone was pleasant. His pattern was insistent.
“I’m just crediting my team right now,” Moustakas said, a day after he fretted about serving as a distraction.
The distraction sprouted from Moustakas’ dreary start to the season. His breakout on Wednesday pumped his batting average to a still frightful .161. As the team contemplated a roster move heading into Tuesday’s game, they considered sending Moustakas to Omaha. One team official described the hypothetical maneuver as “mental break” for a talented player unable to utilize his skills.
The public criticism stung Moustakas. Both Yost and general manager Dayton Moore delivered passionate defenses of him. He sounded genial and upbeat with reporters on Tuesday afternoon. Still, a few hours later, he left the clubhouse muttering expletives after the game.
“I’m sure it always motivates you,” Yost said. “When you go through that kind of stuff, it motivates you a little bit.”
An opportunity beckoned in his first at-bat. The Royals loaded the bases with three singles against Rockies starter Jhoulys Chacin. Moustakas passed on two fastballs. He attacked the third, an 88-mph pitch down the middle. Moustakas cracked the ball into the right-field corner and cleared the bases.
The Royals jumped to the dugout railing to salute their third baseman. Moustakas got himself thrown out trying to advance to third on a pitch in the dirt. But his teammates stirred to life as he approached. A series of high-fives greeted him as the crowd stood to applaud.
“We got a chance to put them in a hole early,” Vargas said. “And we did.”
Moustakas flashed an even more encouraging sign in his next at-bat. Defenses this season have often greeted with him a dramatic shift, placing all their infielders on the right side of the diamond. Moustakas flicked a double past an unmanned third base. It inflated his season total of two-base hits to seven.
Then came the defense. The Royals cherish his ability at third base. They consider it vital. For a moment in the sixth, he showed why.
The Rockies placed runners at the corners with two outs. Up came Carlos Gonzalez, one of Colorado’s most dangerous hitters. At third base, Charlie Culberson began to drift from the bag. As catcher Salvador Perez pegged a throw, Moustakas sprinted over and slapped a tag on Culberson.
Vargas appreciated the escape hatch. It was the sort of play this organization expects from Moustakas. His frustration may have yet to ebb, but his play on Wednesday was still heartening for his club.
“I believe in him,” Yost said. “Dayton believes in him. The players in that locker room believe in him.”