He's an unlikely hero for an underdog playoff run, but Lorenzo Cain, firing on all cylinders, embodies the Royals' storybook October
WHEN HE joined his high school baseball team during his sophomore year, after he was cut from the basketball team, Lorenzo Cain didn't own a glove. He had never played in an organized baseball game, and he was so clueless about how to wield a bat that he held it cross-handed, left over right. Now, with his tall, broad-shouldered, 6'2", 205-pound frame and the way he glides across the bases and floats through the outfield like a phantom—"He's always nowhere in view, and then bam, he's flying in, making the catch," says Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer—the Royals' 28-year-old centerfielder looks like he was born to play the game.
He is not the ace who was brought in to save the once woebegone franchise, and he is not one of the team's homegrown players who were busted prospects before blooming into stars this postseason, but in many ways Cain, the breakout star of the postseason, embodies the 2014 Royals' storybook run. Kansas City has dominated opposing teams with an unexpected home run barrage and also by doing what they did all year: putting the ball in play on offense, flying around the bases as if on the autobahn and playing breathtaking defense. Cain had 10 hits and two steals over the Royals' first six playoff games while making Cirque du Soleil defensive plays night after night—MLB Advanced Media's Statcast system calculated that he reached a breakneck speed of 21.2 mph and covered 82 feet before laying out to make a game-saving catch in Game 2 of the ALCS. "He's been playing the best we've ever seen him play," Hosmer said after Cain also went 4 for 5 that day in Kansas City's 6--4 win in Baltimore.
Cain was a 17th-round draft pick by the Brewers in 2004 and was an undistinguished prospect when he and shortstop Alcides Escobar were dealt to Kansas City in the blockbuster deal that sent Zack Greinke to Milwaukee in '10. While the rise of the Royals will always be tied to general manager Dayton Moore's '12 deal to acquire ace James Shields, those inside the organization view the Greinke trade as the moment that was the real "start of our championship team," Royals manager Ned Yost says, "to get two guys as athletic as they are." If the team had to trade an ace, at least in return they got strong up-the-middle defense at a time when run prevention was increasingly valuable. While the slick-fielding Escobar has been a mainstay for the Royals at shortstop since his arrival, Cain has always struggled to stay healthy; this year was the first in which he appeared in more than 115 games, and he hit a team-best .301 with 28 steals and played elite defense. (He was second in the league among centerfielders in defensive runs saved.) During the regular season only leftfielder Alex Gordon posted a higher WAR for Kansas City, and under the hot bright lights of October, Cain revealed himself as the team's most versatile and exciting player.
"The hard work I've put into this game is definitely paying off right now," says the most improbable player on the most improbable team in baseball. "I feel like I'm making up for lost time." This October the same can be said for just about everyone in Kansas City.
AL TIELEMAN/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
LEAP OF FAITH Cain was among the best centerfielders in baseball this season, helped by his speed: In Game 2 he reached 21.2 mph to make a crucial catch.