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Infante with big game in Royals win

By ANDY McCULLOUGH

McClatchy-Tribune

BALTIMORE -- Omar Infante often resides in a cocoon of icepacks and a cone of silence. In the wake of one of the best games of his career, a six-RBI afternoon in a 9-3 Royals victory, Infante stood at his locker with one pack cooling the bone chip in his left elbow and another warding off any lingering inflammation in his left shoulder.

Inside a boisterous clubhouse, Infante's voice is rarely heard. "He smiles a lot," manager Ned Yost said, and his grin was ear-to-ear on Sunday afternoon.

"That's a great day for me," Infante said. "A great day for the team."

Infante powered the offense by matching a career-best he set last season in Detroit. After a pair of productive, run-producing outs in his first two at-bats, he ripped a two-run double in the fifth and launched a two-run homer in the seventh. His output allowed the Royals (12-12) to cruise and fly home with a 3-4 record on this road trip.

During the winter, the franchise made a significant financial commitment to Infante. They out-bid his other suitors, including the Yankees, with a four-year, $30.25 million deal. At 32, Infante plugged a cavernous, continuous organizational void at second base. He serves as a mentor to shortstop Alcides Escobar. And he leads the team with 17 RBI through 24 games.

"He fits our style of play," Yost said. "He's a very consistent player. A very heady player."

On Sunday, Infante displayed his value in field from the start. He made a barehanded grab on a grounder in the first and sprawled to nab another ground ball in the second. The defensive sharpness was critical, because James Shields (3-2, 2.03 ERA) treated the infield grass at Camden Yards with malevolence.

During the first five innings, the Orioles lifted only two balls into the outfield. Shields only lamented a two-run home run to Baltimore slugger Nelson Cruz in the sixth. Otherwise, he delivered a signature, standard performance, pacifying his hosts for seven innings.

In six appearances this season, Shields has now tossed five quality starts. Still, he transferred credit to his second baseman. He lauded Infante for his play in the infield, and appreciated his offensive performance. "He definitely carried our team," Shields said.

After only a few months together, Yost credits Infante as a positive influence on Escobar. The middle infielders are fellow Venezuelans. The coaching staff believes Escobar has noticed Infante's diligence and begun to mimic his countryman.

"I think that he's been working as hard as I've ever seen him in all phases of his game," Yost said of Escobar. "His offense, his defense, his batting practice, his pre-game workout, his weight-room conditioning. I think Omar has helped him in all that."

In part, Escobar learns through osmosis, first-base coach Rusty Kuntz explained. Last season Escobar worked in a batting-practice group with Salvador Perez and Billy Butler. He tried to match their power displays, a mistake which infected his game and hampered his production.

Now Escobar has a more concrete example of the type of hitter the team wants him to be. Infante, Kuntz continue, is "a professional hitter. He just works on stuff. Now, all of a sudden, Esky starts working on stuff." In the process, Escobar entered Sunday's game leading the team in on-base plus slugging percentage.

After his outburst on Sunday, Infante is not far off the lead. His .407 slugging percentage trails only Escobar. At a time when the heart of the order -- Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez -- cannot find traction, all production is welcome.Infante entered Sunday in the midst of a slump. He was batting .217 in his last six games, and he felt he had been hitting too many flyballs. "I don't like that," he said. "I like line drives."

He collected a pair on Sunday. The first crashed into the left-field fence. The second cleared the fence in center.

It was his most productive game since Sept. 6, 2013, when the Tigers pounded the Royals, 16-2. Infante set a career-high for RBI, a mark he tied Sunday. The pitcher for Kansas City that day?

James Shields.

"Well," Shields said, "I'm glad he's on my team now."