TORONTO | Ask Royals shortstop Tony Peña if he feels comfortable yet in his stylish new glasses and he offers a wry smile.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It doesn’t look like it, does it?”
OK, it’s a weak stab at humor. Peña is batting .162 after going zero for three in Monday’s 7-2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. That is the lowest among active regular players in both leagues.
The same is true for his .185 on-base percentage and his .204 slugging percentage.
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Even so, for now, Peña remains the club’s regular shortstop.
“I think it goes back to this,” manager Trey Hillman said, “if the guys who are supposed to be hitting will just hit, then he’s not the issue. The issue is the other guys in the lineup who are hitting one through six on any given day.
“Seven-eight-nine? Sure we’d like to have some contribution from them. But if we can just have one through six being patient until they get good pitches, we’ll be fine.”
The other reality is the Royals don’t have an obvious replacement.
Utility infielder Alberto Callaspo has started eight games at shortstop and, much like a backup quarterback, is an increasingly popular favorite with the public.
But Callaspo is a natural second baseman who lacks the range of a big-league shortstop -- a deficiency confirmed again last Thursday when the Red Sox loaded the bases on three fieldable grounders before J.D. Drew unloaded a grand slam in an 11-8 victory over Brian Bannister.
“I say Tony gets two or three of those,” Hillman said. “You can’t hit .160, but I think it was six weeks into the season last year that he was at .206. Obviously, .160 is a far cry from .206, and we’re more than six weeks into the season.”
Peña made a costly misplay Monday when he failed to handle a throw from catcher Miguel Olivo that could have limited the Blue Jays to two runs in the second inning. It wasn’t ruled an error -- Marco Scutaro was credited with a steal -- but Gregg Zaun followed with a two-run homer.
“If Tony catches the ball,” Hillman said, “(the runner) is out and we’re out of the inning. That’s the difference between a two-run inning and a four-run inning.”
Generally, though, Peña has not allowed his hitting woes to affect his defense. Any slippage, however, would leave the Royals with little choice but to find an alternative. If not Callaspo, perhaps minor-leaguer Mike Aviles.
“I had our people run AC’s statistics as a starter,” Hillman admitted, “but he’s only at .255. So I say keep the plus defense, because it is plus defense, and continue to attack the other areas in the hope that he can get better there.”
Top priority: Gaining a better understanding of the strike zone. Even Hillman acknowledges, “Tony swings at some horrendous pitches.”
The new glasses were supposed to help that. The Royals discovered over the winter that Peña’s right eye needed correction. He tried contacts in spring training but gave them up early in the season because he couldn’t seem to keep them sufficiently lubricated.
“My left eye would get blurry,” he said. “It would get dry. Then I just decided to use glasses.”
It hasn’t helped.
“Not yet,” Peña agreed. “It’s tough, you know? But I’m not at the point where I’m going out there and not caring. I’m still battling on every at-bat. I just need a little more luck.”
Hillman sought to stress positives when the Royals closed their clubhouse for a 15-minute pre-game meeting.
“It was just about the overall expectation to win games,” he said, “the way we did when we went through that five-game winning streak. That’s tough to get back when you have a lot of negatives built up.
"Today’s meeting, primarily, was just about being positive and talking about the things we do have the ability to do and the need for consistency with those things.” The key point, no surprise, was the need to improve on-base percentage. The Royals’ .314 OBP entering Monday ranked 26th among the 30 teams. Hillman said the team seeing more pitches had won 70 percent of the game involving the Royals.
“We’re tracking that this year to continue to educate (players on the importance of) on-base percentage,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep hammering that and, hopefully, we’ll be more and more selective.”
Maybe some home cooking can reignite the Royals after a 2-9 road trip. A six-game homestand opens tonight with the first of three games against the Minnesota Twins. Three weekend games follow against the Cleveland Indians before the Royals return to the road.
Promotional highlights include tonight’s T-shirt Tuesday giveaway of hot dog derby racer shirts; a John Mayberry bobblehead giveaway on Saturday; and a Build-a-Bear giveaway on Sunday.
Here are the pitching matchups against the Twins:
Tonight: RHP Brian Bannister, 4-6 with a 4.94 ERA, vs. Minnesota RHP Nick Blackburn, 4-3 and 3.55, at 7:10 p.m.
Wednesday: RHP Zack Greinke, 5-2 and 2.82, vs. Minnesota RHP Livan Hernandez, 6-2 and 4.22, at 7:10 p.m.
Thursday: RHP Luke Hochevar, 3-4 and 4.75, vs. Minnesota RHP Kevin Slowey, 1-4 and 4.29, at 7:10 p.m.
Here’s a blast from the past: Runelvys Hernandez held Class AAA Omaha to one run and three hits in seven innings Sunday in Round Rock’s 4-2 victory. Hernandez, 30, is 4-2 with a 4.26 ERA in 10 starts for Round Rock, which is Houston’s top affiliate.
Etc.This is the first time the Royals have ever been swept in a four-game series by the Blue Jays.
Mark Teahen broke a zero-for-19 skid with a single in the fourth inning. Teahen also had a single in the eighth.
The Royals are batting .205 in their eight-game losing streak and have been outscored 49-16.Billy Butler committed his first error of the season. That leaves John Buck, David DeJesus and
Joey Gathright as the only position players yet to commit an error.