Benny’s work produces heroics

BALTIMORE — Benny’s back. Well, sort of.

With the game tied, Andrew Benintendi stepped to the plate with two outs in the top of the eighth. Salvador Perez stood on third, with Carlos Santana on second. The Royals’ left fielder smacked a single into right field, driving in Perez with the go-ahead run in Kansas City’s 3-2 win over Baltimore on Monday afternoon at Camden Yards.

Then in the bottom of the ninth inning, Benintendi turned on his jets and chased down a ball as it soared through the air off the bat of Anthony Santander. Amidst O’s fans pressed against the wall in the front row of the left-center-field seats, Benintendi leapt up and made the catch to rob Santander of a potential game-tying leadoff homer.

The best part? It wasn’t clear to the fans in the stadium — nor to Royals manager Mike Matheny — that the ball was safe in the left fielder’s glove until he flipped it to center fielder Michael A. Taylor.

“He’s got to start showing us sooner that he has it in his glove,” Matheny said. “I know that delay is great for the opposition and the fans, but not for me. I’d like to know what I thought I saw.”

Benintendi entered the series opener with a .192 average (5-for-26), only two RBIs and seven strikeouts over his past seven games. Against the O’s, he went 2-for-3 with a walk, no strikeouts and the game-winning RBI.

This season, the left fielder is slashing .254/.300/.403 across 402 at-bats, with 12 home runs (most recently on Aug. 20 against the Cubs), 46 RBIs and 86 strikeouts.

While he’s struggled with his swing in 2021 — including in June, when he went on the 10-day IL with a right rib fracture — Benintendi was able to turn his frustration into production on Monday.

“All you can do is keep your head down and keep working,” Benintendi said. “Hopefully the numbers will come up a little bit, but it is what it is. … It’s a result-based game, and obviously it’d be nice to see some more [results], but it is what it is.”

Flash back to that eighth-inning at-bat. Benintendi got results then. So what was working? He knew that O’s reliever Cole Sulser has a fastball that tends to go up in the zone and a changeup that stays down. After taking two balls — a fastball and a changeup — Benintendi fouled off an 84.2 mph changeup high and outside.

“Just try and get a pitch I could handle,” Benintendi said. “Just stay in the zone. I had a feeling that if I was going to get another fastball, it was going to be up in the zone, so I had my sights set up there and, you know, I got a pitch.”

Not only did he get a pitch, but Benintendi sent a 93.8 mph fastball screaming past first base into right field. While his swing may not always be hot, his baseball IQ is high, something that comes from the preparation he puts into each game.

“It’s a grind,” Benintendi said. “Obviously [if] you go up there trying to get a hit every single time, it’s not going to happen. You can do everything right and still you’re out. … The preparation and everything is still the same.”

No stranger to preparation, Kris Bubic provided what the Royals needed on the mound against the O’s: 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball. Bubic flashed his fastball command early, which paired with his changeup for four strikeouts. That command later tapered off in the middle innings, but Matheny was most impressed with Bubic’s ability to work out of jams from the outset. Though Bubic allowed a leadoff double to Cedric Mullins off a changeup, he bounced back and found his control.

“His game’s going to revolve around control and controlling that fastball, and he was in and out of it today,” Matheny said. “He had to fight and go to the changeup in times where he normally wouldn’t, just because he got into a corner a little bit. But right there from the beginning, he had a changeup that gets hit and it’s a double, and we’ve got a speedster on second base. And to be able to leave him at second base … for him to stop even that in the first, I thought was a great job.”

Bubic threw 61 of his 95 pitches for strikes, leaning on his fastball for 53 percent of his pitches while mixing in his newfound curveball 17 percent of the time. The 24-year-old’s changeup, which accounted for 31 percent of his pitches, was used for just under one-fifth of his combined called strikes and whiffs. Proper utilization of his changeup is vital to Bubic’s ability to get strikeouts off his fastball.

“He actually did a really good job of keeping us in that game,” Matheny said. “To be able to limit the damage — I don’t think he had his best fastball command today, and whenever he does that, then that changeup’s going to get more of the swing-and-miss. … You’ve got the curveball a little bit early, and [he] shied away from it, but I thought in the middle innings he started going back to it a little bit.”