A rising Royal star: center fielder Lorenzo Cain's talent makes him popular among fans and is helping his club establish itself as a title contender.
At a volume level no other Kansan City Royals outfielder matched during late-February spring-training outfield drills in Surprise, Ariz..,
Lorenzo Cain made the routine catch.
Only the din from an overhead fighter jet, taking off from nearby Luke Air Force Base, smothered a Cain call for the ball. But nothing could drown out the noise that Cain created, both at the plate and in the outfield, during the Kansas City Royals' unprecedented 8-0 playoff run to the World Series last year.
Cain delivered a breakout season during Kansas City's dash to the playoffs, playing a career-high 133 games and batting .301 in 2014, the only Royals regular to hit above .300. In the playoffs, Cain batted .333 (20-for-60) and was named the MVP of the ALCS against Baltimore.
Despite the glorious finish, Cain's season sputtered in the beginning, just as it did the two previous years when the Royals turned to him in hopes that he'd be reliable as an everyday, all-around contributor.
His nemesis before his breakout? Lower body injuries. Cain missed 17 games in April and early May last year because of a left groin strain. "If I just keep my legs healthy, keep my body healthy and be on the field every day, I feel I've got a chance to go out there on each and every night and find different ways to help this team win," said Cain, who helped the Royals get off to a promising start in 2015 with 15 wins in April, the third-best win total in team history during the first month.
Cain batted .339 and tallied 22 runs in his first 27 games last spring. His start was the sequel to a strong finish a year ago, as he hit his stride last season when the Royals needed him most to end their 29-year playoff drought.
During the Royals' September stretch run, manager Ned Yost inserted Cain into the No. 3 spot in the batting order. Over the final three weeks of the season, he batted .349, scored 12 runs and drove in 11 over his final 19 games. Then he opened the 2015 campaign with a career-high 10-game hitting streak.
The only thing to slow Cain through the first two months of the season was a two-game suspension handed down by the American League for his role in an on-field brawl on April 23 in Chicago. Cain had a tough time accepting the penalty.
"I'm a low-key type of guy," said Cain, who appeared anything but low key in his confrontation with White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija.
After stating that he was bored during his enforced two-game break, Cain returned emphatically with a defensive gem in the first inning against Cleveland on May 6.
Michael Brantley singled up the middle with Jason Kipnis, who had 22 stolen bases last year, on second. Kipnis didn't hesitate rounding third. Nor did Cain, as he scooped the ball up and fired a strike on the fly to catcher Salvador Perez, who tagged Kipnis for the out.
To Brantley, Cain's eye-opening defensive plays aren't surprising. They're reminiscent of the days when they were teammates on the 2006 West Virginia Power, a Class-A team in the Milwaukee Brewers system.
"He was real raw and still learning the game, but he had phenomenal tools," recalled Brantley.
Surprisingly, neither Brantley nor Cain played center for the Power in '06. Center field was patrolled by Darren Ford, who played briefly for the San Francisco Giants in 2010-11.
Brantley eventually ended up with the Indians as the player to be named later in the 2008 CC Sabathia trade. Cain, along with shortstop Alcides Escobar, was sent to the Royals in the Zack Greinke deal after the 2009 season.
Now Brantley and Cain, along with Angels star Mike Trout, are widely considered the American League's premier center fielders. Yost no longer shifts Cain to right as a late-game defensive move as he did last year, when Cain would replace Nori Aoki in right and Jarrod Dyson came off the bench to play center.
Despite three Royals (Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez) receiving Gold Gloves for fielding excellence in 2014, Cain wasn't one of them. That may change this year.
"We feel like he's the best center fielder in the game," said Yost. "Just let him play where he plays best instead of moving him back and forth. The reason we moved him around last year was, from the second half on, to save his legs so he didn't have to cover so much ground out there. But his legs are strong. He's healthy and he can cover that ground."
In his formative years as a ballplayer, Cain, who didn't play organized baseball until high school, found himself drawn to Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter.
"I looked at all his highlights and the way he played the game," said Cain. "I pretty much studied the guy growing up. I definitely was a huge fan (of Hunter). Still am. I molded my game after his."
If there's an edge that Trout and Brantley have over Cain as five-tool center fielders, it's in the power department at the plate. Trout clouted 36 home runs last year while winning his first A.L. MVP award; Brantley hit 20 and finished third in the balloting.
"(Brantley) has always had a great eye and he's always a guy who had a great approach to the plate," said Cain. "He's always been a great hitter. Now he's adding the power, which is something that he has developed."
Cain may never approach Trout's home-run totals, especially playing 81 home games in spacious Kauffman Stadium. Yet, he feels he can work himself into Brantley's neighborhood for homers.
"Power is definitely something I want to add to my game," said Cain.
More power would be welcomed by the team that finished last in the majors in homers last year, though the Royals showed signs early this season that the longball is a more integral part of their offensive arsenal.
Detroit Tigers ace David Price carried a 2-0 shutout into the ninth against the Royals on May 2, when Cain got into a 1-1 pitch that had "no doubt" stamped on it the moment he connected. The ball was quickly jettisoned into the left-field seats and gave the Royals a ray of hope to pull out the game.
"That was a really good pitch," said Price who held on and recorded the complete-game 2-1 victory. "He has turned himself into a star, not just because he hit a home run off me. He's one of the top players in baseball."
On Sept. 12 last season, with the Royals' postseason hopes hanging in the balance, Cain was the No. 8 hitter in the lineup for the sixth time in a stretch of eight games, hardly the billing of a player on the verge of superstardom. He shook his head in frustration after a 4-2 home loss that day against the struggling Boston Red Sox, the Royals' fifth loss in seven games.
"We've been struggling to swing the bat big time," said Cain after the game. "We've got to turn it on. We've got to get going."
The next day Cain moved up to third in Yost's lineup while Escobar shifted from the bottom of the order to lead-off. With James Shields keeping the Red Sox hitters in check, the Royals responded with a badly needed 7-1 win. Pushing themselves to win the A.L. Central title, the Royals didn't yield to the Tigers until the last day of the regular season.
"He (Yost) put me there with the hope of giving this team a boost," said Cain in retrospect. "I feel last year that's exactly what happened.
"I'm just trying to go up there and do what I can to get on base, drive in runs and help this team win ball-games. Hitting in general is not easy for anyone, but I feel as a team we've just got to go out there and believe in ourselves."
Two nights later against the Chicago White Sox, the Royals' baserunning skills--which the rest of the nation witnessed during the playoffs--became the deciding factor on a walkoff infield single by Cain, which scored pinch-running speedster Terrance Gore. Cain himself set a caree high with 28 stolen bases, but finished third on the team behind Dyson (36) and Escobar (31), respectively.
That belief in what the team can do, which Cain cited, played itself out all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. When the Giants retired Salvador Perez for the final out, with Gordon stranded on third base, the Royals felt they were little more than 90 feet short of winning a championship. That's their incentive to finish the job this season.
With a team of rising stars like Hosmer, Perez and Mike Moustakas, the Royals' fan base has been energized, with attendance certain to crack the two-million barrier, a mark the team hasn't achieved since 1991.
On a young club loaded with talent, the hottest selling jersey in Kansas City during the offseason was Cain's. It's the fans' way of saying, "I got it. I got it. I got it." BD
By GREG ECHLIIM
Cain was drafted by the Brewers in the 17th round of the 2004 amateurs draft and made his major league debut on July 16, 2010, with Milwaukee.
ROYALS WITH .300 BA AND 20-PLUS STEALS, SEASON
Last season, Lorenzo Cain became the 10th player in Kansas City Royals history to hit .300 or higher with 20 or more stolen bases in the same season.
YEAR PLAYER BA SB 2014 Lorenzo Cain .301 28 2011 MeIky Cabrera .305 20 2010 Scott Podsednik .310 30 2003 Carlos Beltran .307 41 2001 Carlos Beltran .306 31 2000 Johnny Damon .327 46 1999 Johnny Damon .307 36 1998 Jose Offerman .315 45 1996 Jose Offerman .303 24 1984 Willie Wilson .301 47 1982 Willie Wilson .332 37 1981 Willie Wilson .303 34 1980 Willie Wilson .326 79 1979 Willie Wilson .315 83 1976 George Brett .333 21 1976 Hal McRae .332 22 1971 Amos Otis .301 52