BALTIMORE – During the month of August, as his broken right hand recuperated and the Royals soared without him, Eric Hosmer resembled a ghost inside his own clubhouse.
He rarely lingered at his locker, shuttling between exercises while wearing a small cast. He joked that Alex Gordon hadn’t spoken to him in weeks. Midway through a lengthy winning streak, he quipped, “I don’t want to come back and mess this up.”
And during games, he actually disappeared.
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When the Royals played defense, Hosmer would retreat with hitting coach Dale Sveum into the clubhouse video room.
Sveum queued up video of Hosmer, and contrasted his swing with the swings taken by American League Central sluggers like Jose Abreu, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. The trio all presented a uniform picture, ready to strike the baseball as it arrived. Hosmer was often late, his approach disrupted by the moving parts in his mechanics.
The images stuck with him. When he returned from the disabled list on Sept. 1, Hosmer concentrated on shortening his stroke. The results followed.
Hosmer, the 24-year-old first baseman, batted .290 in September with three homers, tied for his most in any month this season. As the Royals enter the AL Championship Series with Baltimore on Friday, Hosmer looms as their most dangerous hitter, the one most capable of powering this club to their first World Series since 1985.
“He got hot at the right time,” manager Ned Yost said before Thursday’s workout at Camden Yards. “Hos can go through streaks where he tears the cover off the ball. And he’ll go through streaks where it’s a little more difficult for him.
“But right now his swing is very short, very quick. He can hit the ball with power to all fields and he’s seeing the ball really, really well.”
En route to October, the Royals forged an identity built around stout starting pitching, a suffocating bullpen and an athletic defense. The offense often merely rode shotgun, scratching together runs with bunts and stolen bases and sacrifice flies and the occasional timely hit.
In the past four games, Hosmer appears hell-bent on blasting that narrative to bits. He has seven hits in these playoffs, with four for extra bases. He swatted an 11th-inning triple against Oakland. He boomed the game-winning homer in Game 2 of the division series against Anaheim. In Sunday’s clincher, his two-run jack to center field furthered an ongoing celebration — and caused observers to gush about his future.
“I think he is a superstar in the making,” veteran outfielder Raul Ibañez said, adding, “The ball he hit the other day, at night, at Kauffman Stadium, a missile, on a line, a no-doubter, off a left-handed pitcher — that’s the stuff that special players do.”
In short, Hosmer resembled the player the Royals thought they may be acquiring when they drafted him as the third overall pick in 2008. He is a physical marvel, gifted with a 6-foot-4 frame and long arms that allow him to extend his power through the strike zone. Team officials noted how he often embraced the challenge of minor-league playoff games.
Hosmer stormed through the lower levels, zoomed up prospect rankings lists and forced his way into the majors in 2011. He hit 19 homers in five months as a 21-year-old rookie.
Then came the doldrums of 2012 and early 2013. Hosmer resurrected himself in the second half of last season, and promptly face-planted again once more this year. In June, he posted a .532 on-base plus slugging percentage, his lowest total during any month as a professional.
“I’m most disappointed in Hosmer, that he hasn’t been that 30-home run, 100-RBI guy with a Gold Glove,” one rival executive said this summer. “Will he be? I don’t know. Time is flying by. Probably doubtful.”
As the summer continued, Hosmer began to round into form. He hit .429 during the first 14 games of July. Then Jon Lester cracked his hand with a wayward fastball. Eleven days later, the team discovered a stress fracture and shut Hosmer down.
The injury proved serendipitous for the Royals on two fronts. Moving to first base activated the dormant bat of Billy Butler. He carried the offense through August, when they surged ahead of Detroit for a temporary division lead. Plus, Hosmer received time to reflect and refurbish his swing.
A common theory of hitting is this: Each individual possesses his own unique timing mechanisms. It could be a leg kick, a toe tap or, in Hosmer’s case, a subtle raising of his right foot. But all the great hitters land in an identical place as the baseball arrives. Sveum and Hosmer refer to this as “the launch position.”
“There would be a lot of times where I would be loading, and my hands wouldn’t be in the launch position,” Hosmer said. “You’re trying to generate power, and it just cuts off their whole swing path. But when you see guys like Abreu or guys like Miguel Cabrera, when they load and they’re ready to attack the ball, their hands are fully back in that position, ready to attack the baseball.”
At the end of August, Hosmer spent a few days in Triple-A Omaha on a rehabilitation assignment. He led the charge of call-ups on Sept. 1, and reclaimed his spot at first base and in the middle of the team’s batting order.
Now, with the Royals four victories away from the World Series, he has become once again their most dangerous hitter.
“He’s still young,” Butler said. “He’s still figuring it out. I think you’re seeing a small sample of what he’s capable of. It’s something that he can do for a lot of years.”
Royals at Orioles
When: 7:07 p.m. Friday
Where: Camden Yards, Baltimore
Pitchers: KC, RH James Shields (1-0, 4.91 ERA postseason); Baltimore, RH Chris Tillman (1-0, 3.60)
Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM
TV: TBS (Cox 29, DirecTV 247, Dish 139, U-Verse 112)
Inside: Bob Lutz handicaps the ALCS, page 6C