Back on May 29, inside a clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, Whit Merrifield stood near his locker and forced a smile. He had come just one single short of the seventh cycle in Royals history. He had missed on a changeup in his final at-bat against the Detroit Tigers, sending a fly ball to right field.
“Would’ve liked to have had it back,” he said.
If not a once-in-a-career moment, it was close, one at-bat to leave his stamp on franchise history, a home crowd standing and cheering and recognizing the moment. Yet just 76 days later, the opportunity came again on a Sunday afternoon here at Guaranteed Rate Field.
In the Royals’ 14-6 clobbering of the Chicago White Sox, Merrifield clubbed a three-run blast to left-center in the third inning, ripped a single in the fifth and added a two-run triple that plugged the right-center gap in the sixth.
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He dug in at the plate in the eighth against Chicago reliever Brad Golberg, the bases loaded in a blowout contest, needing just a double for the cycle. Here it was again. He took a 97 mph sinker for strike one before hacking at an 0-1 slider. His swing produced a weak pop fly into foul territory. Merrifield exhaled.
“I’m going to get it one of these days,” he said.
“I was kind of hoping he would do it today,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
So, yes, history will be put on hold for now. But for a Royals club that limped into Chicago on Friday and suffered another demoralizing loss that night, the rest of the afternoon went just about right.
Kansas City (59-58) secured its first series victory since winning two of three in Boston in the final days of July. In two days, they stopped a five-game losing streak, brushed off a 2-10 stretch and claimed the final two games here on the South Side of Chicago, pounding out 16 hits and putting up their third-highest run total of the season on Sunday. (They twice have scored 16 runs.)
Merrifield finished 3 for 6 with a career-high five RBIs. Catcher Drew Butera had the first four-hit game of his career. And rookie outfielder Jorge Bonifacio broke out of a 3-for-28 skid with a booming solo homer in the third off White Sox starter Derek Holland and an RBI single in the sixth.
“It was big for us, really big,” Merrifield said. “Especially after losing game one.”
All afternoon, Merrifield was in the middle of the offensive fireworks. Once a hidden star in Kansas City, the 28-year-old second baseman is a cult hero no longer. On Saturday, he connected on his 14th homer — Frank White is the only second baseman in franchise history with more in a season. He drove in five of 14 runs. He offered glimpses of his above-average speed.
If not the Royals’ overall MVP, Merrifield is making a convincing case to be the club’s most dynamic player across the second half of the season. Since July 1, he is batting .320 with eight homers, 13 doubles and two triples in 39 games.
“I think he goes overlooked a little bit,” Butera said. “We appreciate him because we see him every day. But you look at some of the stuff he does on the field, at the batter’s box, getting big hits … just kind of setting the tone for us.
“It’s kind of nationally overlooked. But we notice it.”
As Merrifield ignited the attack, the offense bludgeoned Holland for seven runs in two-plus innings, forcing Chicago manager Rick Renteria to turn to Wichita native Mike Pelfrey. The move offered a decent look at the state of the White Sox pitching staff. Pelfrey allowed a run in three innings before the Royals continued to batter the Chicago bullpen.
On the other side, Royals starter Jason Vargas surrendered three runs in sixth innings, improving to a team-leading 14-6 with a 3.45 ERA. The victory propelled Kansas City to a game over .500 and kept a team in the heart of a chaotic American League Wild Card race.
As they prepared to board a charter flight for the Bay Area for a three-game series with the Oakland A's beginning on Monday, the Royals remained a game behind the Los Angeles Angels (61-58) for the second wild card position. The Angels swept the Mariners (59-60) in Seattle on Sunday. The Minnesota Twins (59-57) remained a half-game behind the Angels.
In the American League Central, the Cleveland Indians are still five games in front. Yet for the Royals, the secret to another playoff appearance is uncomplicated. They must avoid another dead zone and continue winning games at a high clip. It will start with weekends like this one.
“Momentum is easy to stop, it seems, but it’s hard to get,” Yost said. “We were kind of spinning our wheels, trying to get momentum.”
In two days, they righted the ship. They rode the momentum of a go-ahead homer from Melky Cabrera on Saturday night and took their frustrations out on the rebuilding White Sox on Sunday.
And they nearly witnessed something rare. As Merrifield stepped into the box in the eighth, he thought about the opportunity for the cycle. With the bases loaded, there would be no cheap doubles. He could not simply ground a baseball into the outfield and run like heck. So he would try to barrel something into the gap.
He took a swing ... and again came up short.
“With the game like it was, it was in my mind,” Merrifield said. “I needed to hit a ball in the gap. So I made a pretty poor swing on a hanging slider. But what can you do?”