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Hosmer poised to reach another level

Royals' three-hole hitter is set up to thrive in improved lineup

KANSAS CITY -- Eric Hosmer figures it's a good thing that Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante will likely hit 1-2 in the Royals' lineup this season.

An even better thing, however, might be that Hosmer figures to be hitting directly behind them.

Billy Butler, the cleanup hitter and resident student of batsmanship, puts it this way about Hosmer: "He's starting to realize what he is as a hitter, and that's scary, because he's only scratching the surface."

Hosmer scratched that surface with vigor last season, finishing with a .302 average, 34 doubles, 17 home runs and 79 RBIs. He also had the most multi-hit games in the American League, 60.

And keep in mind, most of that production came in the last four months of the season. Through his 50 games in April and May, Hosmer had one home run, 16 RBIs and a .261 average.

It looked like a continuation of his lackluster 2012 season, which followed his robust rookie year. Then on May 30, two new hitting coaches arrived in George Brett and Pedro Grifol and something clicked for Hosmer.

"When Pedro and George came over, Pedro helped me out in the cage and George mentally, and it was just an attitude that we had going into the games," Hosmer said on Friday during Royals FanFest at the Kansas City Convention Center. "One of the biggest things George told me was that it's a battle between you and the pitcher. You might not get him the first time or the second time, but you've got to know he's not going to get off that mound without you doing some type of damage to him."

Hosmer did a lot of damage to a lot of pitchers, particularly late in games. He had a .353 average from the seventh inning on, with seven homers and 29 RBIs.

"You always want to improve your game overall, but for me, my biggest thing is driving in runs," Hosmer said. "I want to go out there and give our pitchers some breathing room, to let them throw their pitches with confidence and with a lead, because that's when they're really effective."

From June 1 on, Hosmer had 16 homers, 63 RBIs and a .318 average.

"Hoz was born to hit," Butler said. "We saw it last year."

Aoki, the right fielder from the Brewers, replaces Alex Gordon at the top of the lineup. Infante, the second baseman from the Tigers, supplants a variety of No. 2 hitters from last year -- most frequently Alcides Escobar, Hosmer and Emilio Bonifacio.

"Gordo did a phenomenal job in the leadoff spot, but he's big and strong and needs to drive in runs. So if we can bump him down and have him come up with guys on base, I think that makes our lineup deeper," Hosmer said.

Aoki and Infante bring considerable experience and success to the top two spots.

"There's a lot of guys with the potential to knock 'em in, so if those guys are getting on and doing what they've done in the past, which we're confident they will be, I think it's going to make our offense really good," Hosmer said.

Manager Ned Yost reeled off a probable batting order at FanFest: Aoki, Infante, Hosmer, Butler, Gordon, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Escobar.

"It's kind of a no-brainer," Yost said. "You've got a real nice left-right sequence in there, you've got the guys you want in the back end, with Billy, Gordy and Sal your big-time run producers. Hoz is going to be a run producer, too, with Aoki and Infante's ability to get on base. I don't think you need to tinker with it too much."

While Hosmer was struggling, so was the club, posting a dismal 8-20 record in May. In Hosmer's view, it was a matter of lessons learned.

"I think the more experience you have and you lose a couple of games, you just kind of sit back and instead of trying harder you just take a deep breath and loosen up everything," he said. "That's one thing that [James] Shields and these guys brought to the clubhouse -- that overall attitude that everyone's got to be laid back and be themselves. We've just got to go out there and have fun playing, and if we do that and everyone does their part, we'll be all right."

The Royals righted themselves with a 16-11 June. Although they stumbled right before the All-Star break with five straight losses, they fired out of the break by winning 21 of 29 games before cooling off. But they weren't finished

As it developed, the Royals took a late-season run at a Wild Card spot, firing up the Kansas City populace and themselves.

"Last year was a blast. When it came to the end of the season in Chicago, nobody really wanted to leave because they knew how close we were, and we were right there," Hosmer said. "It left a good taste in everyone's mouth going into the offseason, knowing how good we could be, and we had one of the best records in the second half of baseball."

Now all they have to do is overtake the defending American League Central champions from Detroit. The Royals' winning record (10-9) against the Tigers last season gives them confidence.

"We like playing the Tigers, we really do enjoy playing the Tigers," Hosmer said. "Every time they come into town and we go there, it's a different energy in the group when we play them, and it has to be. They've won the division the last of couple of years, so they're the ones we have to set out to get. That's the good thing about having such a good team, everybody's so hungry and everyone welcomes the challenge."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for

Kansas City Royals, Eric Hosmer