BALTIMORE – A batting order change can be a drastic thing. Players elevated are pressured to deliver, those moved down deal with doubt.
About a month ago, every player in the Royals lineup had to deal with change. After the scuffling Royals fell to the Red Sox for the second straight game, manager Ned Yost shook things up.
Nobody was in the same spot the next day.
“You never want to change the lineup, but when things aren’t going well a manager has to,” Royals designated hitter Billy Butler said. “When it doesn’t change, people are doing their jobs.”
Nothing has changed lately. Over the last 2 1/2 weeks of the regular season and through the playoffs, old Royals faces in new places have delivered in a big way.
It starts at the top. The Royals line up with Alcides Escobar, Nori Aoki and Lorenzo Cain.
Escobar and Cain were the biggest moves, and getting two of the fastest players at the top – Escobar had spent most of the year hitting eighth or ninth, Cain was sixth, seventh or eighth for more than half the season – was a catalyst for change.
“We wanted to create havoc at the top with our speed,” Yost said.
Three of team’s speed merchants are getting the most plate appearances in a game and the positive results were immediate. The first day of the new lineup, the Royals beat the Red Sox 7-1 with Escobar, Aoki and Cain combing for five hits and four runs.
It had been three weeks since the Royals had scored that many in a game.
“It’s worked,” Escobar said. “But for me, it doesn’t matter. I try to do my job wherever I am. Batting leadoff, maybe I take a couple more pitches, but that’s all.”
As for Aoki, dropping to second wasn’t an issue.
“When I was hitting leadoff, Esky mostly hit ninth,” Aoki said through his interpreter Kosuke Inaji. “It doesn’t seem different.”
But the numbers say much is different.
After the lineup switch until the end of the regular season, a span of 15 games, Escobar hit .375, Aoki .429 and Cain .321, along with healthy jumps in their on-base percentages.
As a team, the Royals hit .289 and averaged 4.4 runs over those 15 games, going 9-6. In the previous 23 games, the Royals hit .234 and averaged 3.1 runs and went 11-12.
The lineup also has been fruitful during the playoffs.
In the wild-card game victory over the Athletics, the top made major contributions, from Escobar’s two hits, Aoki’s game-tying sacrifice fly in the ninth to Cain’s RBI single and run in the three-run eighth.
It continued in the division series against the Angels. With the Royals down 1-0 in the first, Aoki and Cain singled ahead of Gordon’s bases-clearing double to change the game.
Altering the top meant the middle of the order got pushed down and shifted. Eric Hosmer is hitting cleanup followed by Butler, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Omar Infante and Mike Moustakas. Every regular has at least one RBI in the postseason.
Infante, a fixture in the second spot, now hits eighth.
“Bascially, I want to win,” Infante said. “The lineup right now is the one that is getting runs. And you can make contributions from down in the lineup.”
The lineup is working. Asked earlier this week if he plans on making any changes, Yost almost laughed. It’s the least of his worries these days.
“The top of our order is getting on base, the middle of the order is driving them in, then start the cycle over again from the bottom,” Yost said. “We have a really nice balance.”