With Butler in top form, Royals surging
After rough start to the season, slugger manning first base, swinging hot bat
ARLINGTON -- There's Billy Butler coming off the bench to belt a pinch-hit home run to sink Cleveland. There's Butler going 4-for-5 with a three-run blast in a blowout win at Arizona. There's Billy going behind the bag to snare a hot shot to help beat Minnesota. And there he is scoring all the way from first base, his heart pounding wildly in the Colorado altitude.
"I've had the most fun I've had since I've been here," Butler said.
And no wonder. The American League Central-leading Royals have been winning like never before in Butler's eight years in Kansas City.
When Butler arrived in 2007, the Royals had already been through more than 20 years of missing the postseason. Then late last season, they got a little taste of the playoff chase with their exciting, but futile, Wild Card effort.
"I'd have to say the second half last year was the funnest half I've had, but this one's not over yet. I'm planning on this one being a lot of more fun than the last one, because of the position we're in and what I feel like this group can accomplish," Butler said.
"So I'm real excited. I'm excited for the future of this franchise and everything like that, because we've put ourselves in position to compete, not just for this year, but we have a lot of good players, a lot of talent."
Butler has been a significant part of the Royals' talent pool since they made him a first-round pick in the 2004 Draft. He was just 13 days past his 21st birthday when he made his Major League debut in '07. By the '09 season, he'd became a productive part of the lineup; he was solid, strong and dependable.
Maybe Butler wasn't the most agile first baseman around, maybe he took some ribbing about his bulk and his speed, but the guy could always hit. Always.
Then earlier this year, not so much. Through the Yankees series on June 8, Butler had a .249 average with one home run and 21 RBIs. Another clue that not all was well: his walk rate had decreased.
Over the next month or so, Butler's numbers crept up a little, but manager Ned Yost dropped him from his usual third or fourth spot in the batting order to sixth or sometimes seventh.
"We were in the middle of July, and I wasn't seeing much improvement," Yost said. "So it was getting to where we had to do something. But the resurgence hit and he's Billy Butler again."
Ah, yes, that resurgence.
Since July 22, when Kansas City began the mad rush in which it has won 22 of 28 games, Butler has hit .327 (33-for-101) with 16 RBIs, eight doubles, four homers and a .370 on-base percentage. He's batting in the cleanup spot and his overall average is up to .280.
And Butler has been playing first base almost every game, subbing for injured Eric Hosmer, a Gold Glove winner at that position. Being busy in the field instead of being idle between at-bats as a designated hitter seems to have helped Butler.
"I love playing first, and yeah, I have the ability of not focusing so much on what I'm doing wrong at the plate and just going up there and [hitting]," Butler said.
"Sometimes your mind gets in the way, and there's really nothing wrong. The game's such a mental game, and you have to relax up there and that's all I'm doing. I'm going out there and playing first base, and honestly, I'm just going out there and relaxing, just knowing I'm going to get the job done instead of saying, 'Oh, what do I need to fix in my next at-bat?'"
Yost admits when Hosmer went on the disabled list, the Royals were looking at other options at first base -- Raul Ibanez, even catcher Salvador Perez or maybe a new acquisition.
"It's been very, very impressive the way that [Butler has] played first base," Yost said. "I mean, he hadn't played it for, what, two years? He'd played a game here, a game there, and he didn't look too sporty, you know."
But Butler has looked quite sporty over there. He was ready, as he had taken fielding practice every day, just in case.
"I pride myself [on] stepping right in there and playing the way I have, and the team's been very successful with me over there. I take a lot of pride in that," Butler said.
There's always been talk in Kansas City's front office about the "core" of the Royals, the homegrown group that includes Butler, Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Perez, Alex Gordon, Greg Holland and Danny Duffy that was counted on to lead the team in the direction of glory.
"If we didn't turn things around the way we have, there was a chance this core wasn't going to be together that much longer," Butler said.
Butler's sluggish start, quite naturally, gave rise to speculation that the Royals would not exactly jump to exercise their $12.5 million option on his contract for 2015. Now they might reconsider.
"[Butler has] got it back. He's a threat again, where he wasn't before," Yost said. "Driving the gaps, hitting the ball hard."
The old Billy Butler.