The Royals have now won five in a row, just one off their season-best winning streak. The agony that filled the Kansas City baseball ether immediately following the All-Star Break has been replaced with euphoria.
They’re losing! Sell! No. Wait… They’re winning! Buy!
There have been so many new experiences as a Royals fan the last several years, let’s just chalk this season up to another arc in the learning curve. The Royals are a .500 team. They fell well off the pace early in the season, but have been hovering around that mark since they crawled back to respectability in June. But they’re not just any .500 club. Oh, no. They are a .500 club built for one last run that has, beyond reason, found themselves in the thick of a pennant race. It turns out the swings and roundabouts are just a little more extreme this way. Every win feels like a catapult to October. Every loss feels as though they are tottering on the edge of the abyss.
So about that euphoria. In the just completed weekend series, the Royals did exactly what they were supposed to do, which was kick a White Flag (sorry, White Sox) team to the curb. They did so in perfunctory fashion, with a blowout stuffed between a pair of walkoffs. A sweep sandwich, as it were.
In the first two games of the series, the Royals fell behind 2-0 in the early innings only to battle back in both. The approach to eventual victory, however, was different. On Friday it was the old Royals school of “keep the line moving.” A double and a single. A single and a double. A single, a double and a double. This…this is Royals baseball. All the way to a bullpen that kept the Sox off the board to hold serve until a Whit Merrifield sac fly in the tenth to bring home the win.
Saturday, it was very different. After falling behind by that two run deficit, it was the New Royals bringing the thunder. Dinger, dinger, dinger, and the White Sox were dead. Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, and a newly resurgent Brandon Moss brought the power. As if that weren’t enough, Jorge Bonifacio got into the act and Moustakas provided the finishing touch, his second of the evening and third of the weekend.
Sunday. What on earth can we say about Sunday? It was the same, but different. Different in that it was the Royals who jumped out to open the scoring taking the early lead. The same in that it was again on the power of the dinger. After being held without a hit through the first three frames, Merrifield, Bonifacio and Eric Hosmer collectively decided they had had enough. That they did so in back-to-back-to-back fashion was all the more impressive. This is a Royals team intent on shedding the yoke that Kauffman Stadium is unfriendly to the power hitter. It was the first time since 2006 (!) the Royals had a trio blast three consecutive over the fence.
Back on track, Sunday was different because after taking the lead, the Royals and Travis Wood couldn’t hold on to it. After the Royals flipped the power switch, the White Sox plated four runs of their own the very next half inning. The same because the Royals wouldn’t accept losing to an inferior team, so they rallied and claimed victory. Merrifield tied the game up in the eighth before Moss brought home the win in the ninth.
And how about this Merrifield guy? Left out of the power surge on Saturday, he decides to put on a display on Sunday. Just a couple weeks after someone (ahem) argued he should be moved out of the leadoff spot, all Merrifield has done is crush the baseball. HIs second half wRC+ is 167 and he’s hitting a cool .351/.419/.595. Small sample size, yeah, yeah, yeah. But what you can’t dispute is Merrifield’s knack for picking this team up when they need it the most. Amazing moxie for a guy who couldn’t even break spring training with the team.
All Merrifield did in this just completed weekend was tune up the White Sox with four hits in 10 at bats, with a couple of walks, those two dingers, and that one walkoff sacrifice fly. And he did it while playing some exceptional defense. It’s Whit Merrifield’s world, we’re just the fortunate bystanders.
The late game heroics do support the point made here a couple of weeks ago that Merrifield seems to have a healthy does of the “clutch gene.” He’s the guy who just always seems to come through in the big moments. Baseball Reference has a split called “late and close” which is defined as a plate appearance in the seventh inning or later with the game tied or the player’s team ahead by one or with at least the tying run on deck. It turns out the Royals as a team are kind of good at this “late and close” kind of thing.
The Astros are in another universe and it’s kind of weird to see the Braves and the Padres so high up the leaderboard, but there are the Royals. (Remember, sOPS+ is the number to focus on in the table above. That’s the late and close split relative to the rest of the league. The Royals are 21 percent better than average.) We can buy the storyline that the team is full of grinders who never give up or we can subscribe to the theory they’ve been there and done that so they just know how to win. Whatever the reason, it’s something that has come to define the season and pull them out of their April doldrums and a similar – yet thankfully shorter – struggle out of the gate in the second half.
Back to Merrifield. On a team full of guys who have the “clutch gene,” Merrifield is one of those guys you want at the plate with the game on the line. In fact, he may be The Guy.
Merrifield ranks third on the Royals in WARP at 2.4. He trails Cain and Hosmer (2.9 and 2.7 WARP, respectively), although he has around 60 to 70 fewer plate appearances. HIs .290 TAv likewise ranks third, behind Hosmer (.303) and Moustakas (.294). In other words, he’s not just saving himself for the close and late situations. After a slow start in the leadoff role, he’s rebounding a bit to the levels we saw when he first arrived from Omaha.
At this point, it’s impossible to imagine the team without Merrifield. It’s not his team in the way that Perez or Hosmer seem to own this city, yet there is a definite appreciation of his talents. The guy just seems to have a knack of coming through when he’s needed the most. That’s a horrible cliche, but in this case it’s true, damnit. And that will endear a guy to any fanbase. He did it again on Sunday. And who would bet against him doing it a few more times down the stretch? After all, the heat of a pennant race seems tailor made for some more Merrifield heroics.