ST. PETERSBURG -- Know what tickles Alcides Escobar's funny bone? A dribbler off his bat that he beats out for a hit.
"When I get an infield hit, I'm laughing, because I enjoy my infield hits," Escobar said.
Well, the shortstop has had a lot of enjoyment this season, because his 31 infield hits, as of Sunday, were the second most in the Major Leagues. The Yankees' Derek Jeter had 32.
Last Saturday, Escobar became the first Major Leaguer to have four infield hits in a game since Roberto Alomar did so on Aug. 20, 2003, for the White Sox.
Infield hits are especially gratifying for Escobar after some of his line drives have been picked off by a shortstop or second baseman -- and he has hit a lot of line drives this season. He went into the series opener against the Rays with a .308 average and an eight-game hitting streak, during which he is 14-for-33. Last year he finished with a .254 average.
"I feel much better this year than I was last year," he said, "because I've got more patience at home plate and I'm trying to see more pitches. I want to hit with the count 3-1 or 3-2, although sometimes I swing at the first pitch when I feel like it's going to be a fastball."
Manager Ned Yost stuck with Escobar last season, even when he struggled early, and he sees a much improved hitter this year.
"In every way," Yost said. "He's more patient at the plate, he's using his whole tool set in terms of bunting, his speed, his ability to hit the ball to right field, which he's really improved on. Earlier in his career, he was predominately a pull guy; now he's got much better plate discipline. He's our best situational hitter, he's our best bunter, one of our best basestealers."
Escobar swiped 24 bases in his first 28 tries this season after stealing 26 in 2011, and he is the first Royals shortstop to have back-to-back seasons with 20 or more since U.L. Washington had 23 in 1982 and 40 in 1983.