AP Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Left-hander Jason Vargas peered toward the plate, wound up and delivered a fastball with total confidence, and Eric Hosmer took a massive cut with just as much certainty in his swing.
Both of which were good news for the Kansas City Royals.
For Hosmer, it was one last test of his bruised hand before returning to the lineup for Tuesday night's series opener against Minnesota. For Vargas, it was a four-inning simulated game that could be the final hurdle in returning to the starting rotation following an appendectomy.
The Royals began the day five games back of Detroit in the AL Central, and just 2 1/2 games out of the second wild card. They are trying to end a playoff drought that stretches back to 1985.
"Games throughout the year are huge," Hosmer said, "but obviously time is ticking down now."
Hosmer's return should help. Not only is he far better defensively than Billy Butler, who filled in at first base, but he also was starting to heat up when he took a pitch from Boston's Jon Lester off his right hand. Hosmer was hitting .410 in July, the best in the majors.
Hosmer believes he'll be able to pick up right where he left off.
"I'm ready to get back in there and not have to watch anymore," he said. "It feels good."
Vargas, who has been a pleasant surprise for the Royals this season, has been on the disabled list since July 10. He threw 15 pitches in each of his simulated innings Tuesday, and said moments after walking off the field that "everything is good."
Manager Ned Yost didn't rule out Vargas returning to the rotation this weekend, when the club plays in Oakland. That would mean sending out a starter who is 8-4 with a 3.31 ERA rather than getting another start from Bruce Chen, who is just 2-3 with a 6.42 ERA this season.
"We just go day to day with it. Our focus today is to win this ballgame, and I don't take it much farther than that," Yost said, when pressed for a timetable on Vargas' return. "You're asking me to answer questions that I don't have the answer to."
In other news, catcher Erik Kratz and touted prospect Christian Colon arrived following Monday's trade with the Blue Jays. Kratz was acquired along with minor league pitcher Liam Hendriks for third baseman Danny Valencia, while Colon was recalled from Triple-A Omaha.
Kratz, a longtime minor leaguer, will back up Salvador Perez, while Colon will serve as a utility infielder capable of playing second base, third base and shortstop.
"I'm going to come out here and work every day and make sure I'm doing everything in my power to win games," Colon said. "The guys here are doing a great job. I'm just trying to help out."
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