KANSAS CITY -- The Royals weren’t exactly sure what they were getting in third baseman Maikel Franco when they signed the former Phillie as a free agent in the offseason.
What the Royals have learned is that Franco can be huge in the clutch, and that he is tough-minded -- for weeks he has been playing through what the Royals have only described as a “lower leg injury.”
Franco came through again Monday night against the Cardinals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City’s 4-1 win. First he scored, gimpy leg and all, from third base in the fifth inning on a slow roller to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt off the bat of Alex Gordon. With the contact play on, Franco crossed home plate without a throw, tying the score at 1.
“You’re talking about a ball hit to a good defender,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “Knowing his leg wasn’t feeling right but his timing was so good on that contact play … it really came down to his secondary lead.”
Franco said he’s just trying to get the job done, even with the bad leg.
“My leg is bothering me, but at the end of the day I don’t even think about it,” he said. “As soon as it was hit, I thought I was going to score. When I'm running, I feel a little bit of pain, but I think I’m going to be all right.”
Then in the sixth inning, Franco came up with the bases loaded and two out against Adam Wainwright. Franco punched a sinker on the outer half of the plate down the right-field line for a two-run single.
The Cardinals were shifted for Franco to pull.
“I don’t think he has ever hit a ball right of second base on me, honestly,” Wainwright said. “I just can’t think of one in a lot of at-bats. We were, rightfully so, shifting there. Good hitters, they find a way, they find a hole. That’s what he did.”
Asked if he was intentionally trying to go to the right side, Franco said with a straight face, “I’m going to say yes.”
Franco now leads the Royals with 33 RBIs in 54 games. That, of course, projects to a 99-RBI full season.
And Franco has been clutch late in games. He’s now hitting .354 in the seventh inning or later this season.
“I never think about it,” Franco said. “I just try to stay confident and stay focused in those big moments. Just try to have a good at-bat and fight all the way down.”
The Royals also continue to gather information about rookie right-hander Carlos Hernández, who made his second big league start.
Hernández, the Royals’ No. 11 prospect per MLB Pipeline, gave up one run over 3 2/3 innings. He threw a career-high 72 pitches, 40 for strikes.
Hernández labored, for sure. He gave up a home run to Matt Carpenter on a 3-1 fastball in the second. And Hernández had to navigate through traffic in every inning, as he gave up four hits and walked three.
But Hernández struck out four and got a massive double-play ball off the bat of the dangerous Paul Goldschmidt with two on and none out in the third, on a curveball.
“He attacked like how we wanted him to,” Matheny said. “He got into a little trouble and decided to use his defense and got the double play. He didn’t let the walks get to him. He kept his emotions under control.
“That [double play] was the turning point right here.”
Hernández agreed, saying through interpreter Luis Perez, “Pitcher’s best friend. I had a sigh of relief.”