Defense central: Talented Cain a go-getter in outfield
Dedicated to fieldwork, Royals center fielder fearless despite being disrupted by injuries
MINNEAPOLIS -- CAIN 6.
That usually makes good reading for Kansas City pitchers when they're standing on the mound, gazing expectantly toward center field while a baseball rockets toward the wall.
They'll be reading the back of Lorenzo Cain's uniform as he runs down another drive in the deepest reaches of Kauffman Stadium or Target Field or some other ballpark.
Cain is a center fielder par excellence, a far-ranging wizard on a team known for its defensive wizardry.
"I had to work at it," Cain said. "God gave me the gift to be able to run down balls the way I do and to track balls -- and definitely gave me speed."
On Opening Day this season, Wilson Sporting Goods honored Cain as the Royals' best defensive player last season. He was nominated for center field in the Rawlings Gold Glove competition. In 2011 with Triple-A Omaha, Cain won the Frank White Award as the best defensive player in Kansas City's Minor League organization.
Cain's been very busy this season. As of the Royals' open date on Thursday, Cain led Major League outfielders with 29 putouts, and he'd played just seven games.
"I feel like defense is one thing that you can control, as far as making the plays and just being a playmaker for the team," Cain said. "I've always taken pride in being the best defensive player out there. That's what I strive for each and every day. That's my job."
Cain reminds Kansas City manager Ned Yost of Andruw Jones, a 10-time Gold Glove winner in Atlanta's outfield.
"He's very fundamentally sound in the outfield in terms of his routes. He's got great hand-eye coordination," Yost said. "You know Andruw Jones had it. Andruw knew from the moment the ball was hit where the ball was going to be. Lorenzo Cain has that. It's the ability to read a baseball off the bat and run really good routes to that spot to get you there as quick as you can."
Cain, who'll turn 28 on Sunday when the Royals play the Twins, has had his career interrupted by injuries. Most spectacularly, he crashed into the center-field wall at Oakland on April 10, 2012, in just the season's fifth game. Cain sustained a left groin strain. That plus two other later leg injuries restricted him to 61 games.
That prompted a special conditioning program to keep Cain's legs healthy. The Oakland incident has had no lingering aftermath, though.
"The wall doesn't scare me," Cain said. "It might take me out sometimes, but it definitely doesn't scare me. Running into the wall is there, but if you've got to run into a wall to make a play, I guess you're going to have to."
Cain works between three-time Gold Glove outfielder Alex Gordon and the club's new Japanese right fielder, Nori Aoki. No language barriers so far; after all, outfield-speak is pretty universal.
"A few games ago against the White Sox, there was a fly ball hit into center, and I was able to let Aoki know I couldn't see it," Cain said. "And he picked it up soon, and instead of the ball dropping or me trying to catch it in the sun, I was able to communicate and he was able to make the catch."
With the accurate-throwing Gordon next to him for guidance, Cain last year had a career-high seven assists -- one more than he had previously in his entire career.
Cain didn't begin playing organized baseball until his sophomore year in high school. If getting a late start in the rudiments of hitting was an obstacle, he's overcome it well.
"When he first got to the big leagues, he'd have some ugly at-bats, but he'd always find a way to put the bat on the ball, and he ended up hitting .300 his first year," Yost said.
"He's got a short swing, he's got a lot of power. He can hit a line drive as hard as anybody we've got. It's just more learning how to hit and how to handle situations and put the bat on the ball, and he's grown each year."
After a .251 average in 2013, Cain is off to a .320 (8-for-25) start batting out of the No. 8 hole in the order.
"I wouldn't say it came easy to me. I'm still trying to critique and figure out things with my swing," he said with a chuckle. "I definitely don't have it down, but I'm working every day to get it down. I feel like I'm improving but, at the same time, I still feel like I have to work each day, maybe harder than the next guy, to be a good hitter as well."
Although Cain got a day off on Tuesday so that backup outfielder Jarrod Dyson could log a game in center, Yost has no plans to give Cain extra days off to rest his legs.
Just keep the disabled list at bay.
"As long as I'm not on the DL, I'm having a blast," Cain said.
An easygoing, amiable guy, Cain has settled into Oklahoma City, where he conditions with a personal trainer.
"A very cold winter this year, I definitely wasn't used to that at all," he said. "I was a Florida guy, so it was a big change. I had to get used to it, but I like the seasons like that, getting a chance to see snow around Christmas time, so I actually enjoyed it."
What Cain would really like to enjoy in October is to keep on playing.
"I definitely feel like we can get into these playoffs and just let the chips fall where they may once we get in there," Cain said. "We've still got to score more runs, though. We kind of got off to a slow start. I feel like we have solid pitching, solid defense, and we've just got to start swinging the bats and being more consistent in scoring runs. If we get that down, I think we'll be OK."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.