Rios silences naysayers with breakout game
TORONTO -- Alex Rios never flipped his bat and hardly even stopped in admiration. The Royals' right fielder unleashed a mighty hack on the get-me-over fastball he was looking for, then simply dropped his head and jogged swiftly, stoically around the bases on Tuesday, acting as if his second-inning home run was just like any other -- even though it wasn't.
This was Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. This was the fifth run of an eventual 14-2 shellacking of the Blue Jays. This was a 408-foot missile that stunned and silenced a sellout crowd at Rogers Centre that had spent the past two days hassling Rios, the former Toronto outfielder who never quite met their expectations.
Asked later if he had ever taken more enjoyment out of a home run, Rios responded plainly: "It's just good to give the team a little bit of room to play with."
"Yeah," Rios said with a smirk, "it was good."
It's been a rough year for Rios, whose offseason free agency produced only a one-year contract. He missed seven weeks of his first season with the Royals early on with a broken left hand, had a surprising bout with chicken pox toward the end and finished the regular season with a .255/.287/.353 slash line. When the postseason began, Rios was the No. 9 hitter in Kansas City's lineup. And as Game 4 approached, the 34-year-old had mustered only one hit and zero walks in 10 ALCS plate appearances.
Still, Royals manager Ned Yost had an inkling.
"I just felt that Alex was going to have a great day today," Yost said, his team sporting a commanding 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series and looking to secure a return trip to the World Series in Game 5 on Wednesday (3 p.m. ET airtime on FOX Sports 1 and Sportsnet, with game time slated for 4 p.m.). "I told him before the game, 'You're going to have a great game today.' I don't know why I felt it, but he sure did."
Rios finished with three hits in three at-bats, including his first career postseason home run. The solo shot traveled to straightaway center field, on a 2-0, 83-mph fastball from knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, and it gave Kansas City an early 5-0 lead. He then shot a single to center field in the fourth and another in the seventh, the last one loading the bases with none out to help set up another four-run inning.
It was the kind of game Rios had been waiting for, against the last team that wanted to see it.
"You know what? It doesn't make any difference," Rios said when asked if it meant any more to have this performance against the Blue Jays. "I think this is a team that we have to go out and beat. Even though I played here, I have great memories from when I was here. But it's just another team that we have to go out and beat."
Rios was drafted by the Blue Jays in the first round, 19th overall, out of high school in 1999. Eight years later, he made his second consecutive All-Star team and impressed them enough to sign a seven-year, $69.835 million extension. Rios signed on the dotted line on April 4, 2008. Sixteen months and six days after that, he was sent to the White Sox, who claimed him on waivers and brought him to Chicago without giving Toronto a single player in return.
Rios never produced in Toronto the way the locals expected, but he wasn't given much of an opportunity. He became a casualty for an organization that suddenly wanted to rebuild, a lightning rod for Blue Jays fans frustrated with the team's direction. They deemed Rios lazy, and they chastised him for the June 4, 2009, incident in which he was seen on camera cussing at a heckling fan.
Every time Rios stepped on the field here, the boos followed, escalating in ferocity and volume with the magnitude of this series. He tuned it out.
"When you're on the field, you just hear noise," Rios said. "It's just noise. You can't recognize what they're saying, or what they're trying to say. It's just noise, and we're used to hearing noise."
Rios carries a calm disposition that helps him ignore naysayers. Throughout his 12-year career, he said he's learned "how to channel all that energy in positive ways," and that has especially been the case during his return trip to Toronto this week. At one point during Tuesday's game, one fan yelled, "You're still pretty, Alex. But not as pretty as you used to be."
Rios didn't hear it.
"But that's a good one," he said, smiling. "That's a good one."