04/06/2002 01:04 am ET
Sweeney gets Royals on the board
By Robert Falkoff / MLB.com
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Mike Sweeney is taking target practice at the grassy area beyond the center-field wall at Kauffman Stadium.
Two nights after Sweeney hit a ball there that Minnesota's Torii Hunter pulled back into the ballpark, Sweeney went that way again in the third inning of a 2-2 game against the Chicago White Sox. This time, the ball disappeared for a two-run homer that boosted the Royals toward a 5-2 victory.
"I say this modestly, but I hit the other one better," Sweeney said. "It's just a different night, different environment. The ball carried a little better tonight."
After losing a couple of tough-luck games against Minnesota, the Royals needed that bolt of offense from their main man. On the one-week anniversary of his five-year, $55 million contract extension signing, Sweeney paid a nice dividend on that investment.
The Royals, 1-2, never looked back after Sweeney's two-run blast produced a 4-2 lead. That blow rejuvenated Royals' starter Paul Byrd, who had given up an early 2-0 lead when the White Sox scored twice in the third.
"Huge, just huge," Byrd said. "When your team scores, the thing you strive to do as a pitcher is go right back out there and shut them down the next inning. I didn't do that. We're up 2-0 and then it's 2-2. But after Sweeney went deep, it's 4-2, and I've got another chance. In my mind, I'm thinking 'I can't let them answer again.'"
Byrd didn't. Nor did reliever Blake Stein, who came on to pitch three scoreless innings for the save. In the Royals' clubhouse, Stein is called Big Bird. So, it was Byrd and Big Bird that did in the White Sox after Sweeney's big blast.
"It feels great," Sweeney said. "I had a feeling we weren't going 0-162. I had a hunch. It was just a matter of time before we got on track."
After going 2-for-4 Friday, Sweeney is off to a 5-for-12 start at the plate with four runs batted in through three games. He hit .393 in Spring Training.
"I'm comfortable at the plate and hitting the ball hard," Sweeney said.
Sweeney wasn't content with his two-run homer and a second-inning single that started a two-run rally. When he popped to the catcher in the fourth with a runner at third and one out, the ultra-competitive Sweeney looked as though he was ready to break the bat over his knee.
"I thought about it because I was so frustrated," Sweeney said. "But I knew that wouldn't be wise. It's not professional and it's not healthy."
Sweeney, a converted first baseman, also contributed a nice play defensively in the ninth. With one on and one out, Sweeney raced with his back to the plate and hauled in a Tony Graffanino pop foul down the right-field line.
"That's one of the better athletic catches I've seen Michael make," Royals manager Tony Muser said. "Last year or the year before, he would have probably been doing some circles on that play. The more he goes out there at first base, we're hoping the better he gets at that position. He's a guy who came up as a catcher and had to learn first base at this level."
Sweeney credits Royals coach Rich Dauer with helping him become a better defensive first baseman.
"I'm not a brutal first baseman anymore and Rich Dauer has been a big part of that," Sweeney said. "I now feel like I'm an adequate first baseman."
Once Sweeney gave Kansas City the 4-2 lead, it was all about the Royals' pitching. Byrd, who had a rough time in Spring Training, seemed to get stronger as the game wore on. Muser went to the bullpen even though Byrd looked especially sharp in the fifth and sixth. Byrd allowed nine hits, but the key was that he didn't issue a walk.
"The first couple of innings, I was probably overthrowing a little bit," Byrd said. "I was able to settle down. We had lost two tough games, even though we played well. So, this was a big one to win. If I don't win here, I get like an hour's sleep."
Stein, who has worked both as a starter and reliever, had no endurance problems in going the final three innings. With closer Roberto Hernandez still a few days away from returning to the 25-man roster, the Royals asked Stein to bring home the season's first victory.
"I went out there with the mindset that I was going to finish the game," Stein said. "I wasn't thinking that I would just get to the ninth and give it to somebody else. Nobody was down after we lost those first two games. We were determined to break through and a lot of guys contributed to making that happen tonight."
Robert Falkoff covers the Royals for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.