The obvious storyline Thursday night, when the Royals opened a four-game series in Baltimore with an 8-2 victory, is Billy Butler had two chances to hit for the cycle. And he needed a single. Not a triple.
That’s right. He had the triple.
Alas, the Butler didn’t do it. (Go ahead and groan.) He struck out in the seventh inning against Matt Lindstrom and in the ninth against side-armer Darren O’Day. That means George Brett, in 1990, remains the last Royal to hit for a cycle.
“I really didn’t have much to hit,” Butler said. “They pitched me tough. Lindstrom threw me some really good sliders. He threw me a fastball right on the outside corner, and then threw me a slider to put me away.
“And O’Day is somebody a right-hander isn’t going to have much success against at all. I know I haven’t. I’m just trying to take him the other way, and it just didn’t work out. He’s going to get most righties out most of the time.”
Butler’s quest made it easy to overlook a lot of positives, including another strong outing by rookie left-hander Will Smith, who held the Orioles to two runs and six hits in seven innings.
The Royals also had 13 hits in a balanced attack that included a season-high seven extra-base hits. Nearly all of the damage came against rookie lefty Wei-Yin Chen, who has been the Orioles’ best starter.
“We knew he had great stuff,” said left fielder Alex Gordon, who jump-started a four-run first inning by opening the game with a homer for the eighth time in his career. “We knew he had a live fastball. We just got on him early.”
Smith (3-4) has three quality starts in his last four outings and is 2-2 with a 3.93 ERA in five starts since returning from Triple-A Omaha. He looks, in short, a far different pitcher from the overmatched rookie who made three starts earlier in the season.
“I think I’m a completely different (pitcher),” Smith said. “Last time I was up here, things were just moving too fast. I couldn’t slow things down. I went back to Triple-A and worked with Doug (Henry, the Omaha pitching coach).
“I worked on slowing the game down. Then it’s a little easier when the crowd starts roaring if you’re able to control yourself and slow it back down.”
Smith said that often amounts to little more than taking a few deep breaths. That was particularly helpful early in the game when he appeared to get squeezed by umpire Tim Tschida. Walks in each of the first three innings put him in trouble.
“That’s what it is,” he said, “just taking deep breaths. That’s what I worked on. Just try to take a couple of deep breaths before I try to execute my pitches. Then once you start your motion, it just turns into what you know how to do.”
The Royals made it easy for him by scoring four times in the first inning. Gordon led off with a homer before singles by Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain preceded a three-run homer by Butler.
The lead grew to 6-0 after Butler’s leadoff double in the third and to 7-0 after his one-out triple in the fifth. That triple came, as might be expected, when an outfielder – right fielder Nick Markakis in this case – tried for, and missed, a diving catch.
“I knew there isn’t much chance for me to get a triple,” Butler said, “especially in a park like this. It’s a smaller park. He dove, and I was getting out of the box pretty good. He dove, and it got past him.
“When it got past him, I was going to try it. It was one out, and we were up 6-0. It was the perfect time to try for it. And I made it.”
It was Butler’s first triple since Sept. 1, 2009 at Oakland.
Chen (10-7) allowed seven runs total over his previous five starts, but the Royals pummeled him for seven runs and nine hits – both are career-worsts – in just 4 2/3 innings.
“That’s one of, if not the best, young hitting teams in the league,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “They were really aggressive and didn’t let any mistakes pass. (Chen) got ambushed early and fought his way through some innings.
“He’s human. He’s performed at a very high level for us, and I think it’s more them than it was him.”
The big early lead meant the focus over the closing innings centered on Butler’s unsuccessful bid for the cycle.
Not much else went wrong for the Royals, though. Aaron Crow and Jeremy Jeffress each worked one scoreless inning in closing out Smith’s victory. The Royals have won three in a row and seven of their last 10.
Smith worked around some early threats. He started the Baltimore first by issuing a walk to Markakis before Adam Jones rifled a one-out liner over Gordon’s head in left, which moved Markakis to third.
But Gordon came up throwing to second and nailed Jones for the second out. Jones didn’t appear to be going full speed – perhaps he was surprised that Gordon threw to second. Smith ended the inning by striking out Matt Wieters on three pitches.
Smith carried a 7-0 lead into the fifth before losing his shutout after Manny Machado, in his big-league debut, laced a leadoff triple into the right-center gap. Markakis followed with a sacrifice fly to left.
The Royals got that run back in the seventh after Gordon pulled a two-out double into right against Kevin Gregg before scoring on Escobar’s single up the middle.
Wieters led off the Baltimore sixth with a homer, which trimmed the lead to 8-2, but Smith allowed nothing more. And look it up: The Royals’ much-maligned rotation has allowed just nine earned runs in 35 innings over its last cycle.
“People look at it and say, `What’s going on?’” manager Ned Yost said. “We feel like we have enough pitching to compete, but consistency has been an issue for us.
“We’ve really been focusing on the consistency of our starting pitching and trying to put together good groups of outings. Here the last week or so, it’s been pretty darn good.”