KC looks to carry hot hitting into opener

KC looks to carry hot hitting into opener

Who would have figured that the Royals would be a terror of Spring Training, whacking home runs and scoring with crazy abandon? Hardly anyone, based on their feeble hitting history of the last couple of years.

Yet there they went with a couple of new acquisitions, center fielder Coco Crisp and first baseman Mike Jacobs, inflicting a lot of the damage. Now that's what you call fulfilling your fondest expectations.

If it carries over from the Cactus League season to the championship season, everything will be up to date in Kansas City -- just like the completely made-over Kauffman Stadium that will house this team.

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The first test, though, comes at U.S. Cellular Field, where the Royals open their 41st season at 1:05 p.m. CT on Tuesday against the Chicago White Sox.

Mark Teahen, one of the most solid swatters in training, feels the wind of change. He arrived in June 2004, just when the Royals were beginning a string of five unhappy seasons.

"I expect us to be in the mix down the stretch, playing for a playoff spot," Teahen said. "I know Spring Training is the time for all teams to be optimistic, but, being around here for five years now, I can see everything and how much better it's gotten and what you need to win in the big leagues. And I look around this clubhouse and feel like we've got what we need to make a run at the [American League] Central and hopefully do some damage."

Catcher John Buck arrived in the same deal as Teahen, the three-team exchange that sent Carlos Beltran away from KC along with the aura of competitiveness that the successes of 2003 engendered.

Buck, too, senses a change in atmosphere around the clubhouse. It's a new, clean, fresh, exhilarating feeling.

"The first four years I was here, that aura, that chemistry, was not here. That's here now," Buck said.

It's more than just Crisp and Jacobs, of course, but their presence seems to have energized what had been a pedestrian offense.

"You can't go too much off spring, but at the same time, you'd rather see a bunch of runs put up than not many," Teahen said. "So last year we didn't score a bunch of runs, and I think we've added a lot with Crisp and Jacobs and, all in all, the team's really come together well this spring."

Buck put it this way: "Those were the pieces we were missing before, and that helps us, along with Seitzer's approach."

A number of players have held up new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, a former Royals player, as an important reason for the upsurge in the offense. Seitzer bounces credit back to the players.

"Got some good talent around here -- that's what it is," Seitzer said. "Guys are putting together some great at-bats, have a great approach, a great plan -- they're battling and competing, and they've done it all. They've really, really impressed me with the quality of at-bats they're having throughout the course of the spring."

Crisp, batting leadoff, gave a clinic on working pitchers and drawing walks and flicking hits and stealing bases and scoring runs. Jacobs pounded several home runs, and the RBIs kept coming.

"You make the pitcher work. Coco's on base, David [DeJesus] is moving him over, 'Jake' does his sac fly or maybe clicks one for a home run," Buck said. "That's how we're trying to produce runs. We're not trying to make one run with one swing anymore."

With Crisp on top of the lineup and Jacobs behind DeJesus, Teahen and Jose Guillen, or whoever manager Trey Hillman slotted in there, the gears were moving throughout the warmup games. And when that happens, the mental game starts improving as well.

"Half the time in this game, it's all about being a little cocky and having that feeling that, 'I can do this,'" Jacobs said.

Nothing like a lot of runs to fuel that feeling.

"The cherry on top is you start to feel good about yourself," Buck said. "You get confident, and balls tend to carry when that happens."

Those balls that carried over the walls in the light Arizona air won't be going quite so far at U.S. Cellular or Kauffman, but the fact is the Royals have been making very good contact all spring. It should pay off.

"With the theory of our approach and the way everybody's trying to attack it, if those balls don't get out at KC because our stadium's bigger, we're still manufacturing runs. We're not manufacturing the home runs quite as frequently, but we're still manufacturing runs, and that's our main objective," Buck added.

Yes, it is. Last season the Royals' run production actually dipped a bit from 2007. Guillen produced some thunder, but not enough. He needed some help in that category, hence the acquisition of Jacobs.

"Depending on how much playing time Teahen gets, we have four, maybe five guys that can hit over 20 home runs pretty easily," Jacobs said. "Any time you have that kind of thump in your lineup, it's obviously going to be in your benefit."

No doubt he had guys like Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and the catching combo of Miguel Olivo and Buck in mind as well.

But this perceived improvement in the Royals' run-producing goes beyond home runs. As well it should, because they play in a spacious ballpark.

"We're a team that needed to shore up our approach a little and swing at our pitches and find ways to get on base, and we've done all those things this spring, and it's a good sign going into the season," Teahen said.

Crisp, obtained from a winning club in Boston, has caught the KC fever.

"I think I was optimistic coming in, and now I'm more of a believer in what we can do," he said.

Pitching matchup
KC: Gil Meche (14-11, 3.98 ERA in 2008)
This is Meche's third straight Opening Day start.

"It's just an exciting game. It's the only game like that all year long, where it's so anticipated," Meche said. "The players are finally out of Spring Training and are finally getting to play in a game that counts. So I want the team to get off to a good start, and I'll do the best I can to make that happen."

Meche revels in all the hoopla that surrounds the first game.

"You walk out there and you see all the media, you see the amount of people camping out and tailgating before the game. And when I walk out of the dugout, you see all the fans that are already in the ballpark," he said. "Starting on the road in Detroit last year, you hear the fans getting on you: 'Aw, you're gonna get it this year. You're gonna get it today,' or whatever. And I know Chicago's going to be a little bit worse because of the way the bullpen setup is; they're literally right behind me in that little beer garden, or whatever it is. But once the game starts, it's just another game. You kind of separate yourself from the fans, even though it's going to be a packed house."

Meche earned this start because he's been the rotation's strong man in his two KC seasons. He's never missed a start, and he's grinded out a lot of innings.

The Royals won both of Meche's first two Opening Day starts. It could be a good omen that his career record against the White Sox is 7-3, including 4-2 at the Cell.

CWS: Mark Buehrle (15-12, 3.79 in 2008)
For the past eight years, Buehrle has entered the season as neither the most talented pitcher in the White Sox starting rotation nor its biggest winner. Yet, with the way Buehrle sets the tone through his tenaciousness and durability on the mound, the southpaw stands out as this team's clear-cut ace.

Buehrle will make his seventh Opening Day start, with Jose Contreras getting the nod in 2006 standing as the only interruption to this impressive streak. He carries a 122-87 record with a 3.80 career ERA into the 2009 opener, not to mention a 19-8 lifetime mark against the Royals with a 3.48 ERA. Buehrle finished 3-2 against Kansas City in '08.

By registering at least 10 wins, 30 starts and 200 innings for the eighth straight year, Buehrle became the only active pitcher in baseball to accomplish such a feat. His 68 victories at U.S. Cellular Field also stand as the ballpark's most. Buehrle enters the season needing just 17 starts to pass Joel Horlen for seventh place on the franchise's all-time list and needs just 16 strikeouts to move past Gary Peters and into the top five on the White Sox career ledger. Buehrle has never been a hard thrower, but he relies on movement and pinpoint location to regularly get the job done.

Crown Points
The Royals have a 15-25 record on Opening Day. ... This is the sixth time they've launched a season against the White Sox, and they're 3-2 against them. ... In the only other opener at Chicago, at old Comiskey Park in 1976, Wilbur Wood pitched the White Sox to a 4-0 victory on a six-hitter. Paul Splittorff took the loss. ... Last season the Royals were just 2-7 at U.S. Cellular. It's not been a welcoming place recently. KC's record there in the last five years is 11-36.

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Up next
• Wednesday: Royals (Zack Greinke, 13-10, 3.47 ERA in 2008) at White Sox (Gavin Floyd, 17-8, 3.84 in 2008), 7:11 p.m. CT
• Thursday: Royals (Kyle Davies, 9-7, 4.06 ERA in 2008) at White Sox (John Danks, 12-9, 3.32 in 2008), 1:05 p.m. CT

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.