The 25-year-old rookie sat inside a dugout in Minneapolis, stretching his right arm and plucking mud from his spikes. He was three outs from baseball lore, and as customary per baseball superstition, he was left virtually alone.
The mind wanders.
Several hours earlier, Royals pitcher Jorge Lopez had called home to check on Mikael, his 5-year-old son. Mikael was supposed to be in attendance for this game, supposed to watch his father pitch, but a rare illness required a last-minute quarantine.
Mikael has been unwell since birth, a child afflicted with two chronic diseases. He is constantly on Lopez’s mind, even Saturday night in Minnesota as he moved within three outs of the 24th perfect game in Major League Baseball history.
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“I have been learning to come to the field and stop thinking about it and start focusing on baseball,” Lopez says. “But it’s still hard.
“We are human.”
The perfect game never came to fruition — Lopez walked the leadoff man in the ninth and then lost the no-hitter on the following batter — but the outing was an overwhelming success, perhaps his best as a professional pitcher and certainly his best since moving to Kansas City in the trade that sent Royals star Mike Moustakas to Milwaukee.
The next morning, Lopez phoned his wife and son from the road. Mikael was improving, he was told, but the battle marches on.
For the first few years of Mikael’s young life, doctors in Lopez’s native Puerto Rico couldn’t determine the source of his pain or delayed development. But Lopez and his wife knew something was wrong. Their child couldn’t stay asleep. He wouldn’t eat and needed to be fed through a tube. It was evident he was hurting.
After more than a year, Mikael was diagnosed with Familial Mediterranean Fever and then subsequently with Crohn’s disease, a particularly rare combination. The former causes fevers and pain in his abdomen. The latter is an inflammatory bowel disease. Mikael receives daily injections containing a half-dozen medications.
“I want to do something for him, but I can’t take control because I’m not a doctor,” Lopez says. “The only way I can help him is by doing my job right now.
“That’s my biggest goal — that I’m able to have the money for him to get better.”
The truth is his son’s illness has already had an effect on his professional life. How could it not?
Lopez had the best year of his career in 2015. While pitching with Biloxi (Miss.), Milwaukee’s Class-AA affiliate, he went 12-5 with a 2.26 earned run average. He shot up the prospect rankings, moving into the top 60 on both Baseball America and MLB.com. He was labeled the Brewers’ best young arm and earned a September call-up. The future was bright.
But as his counterparts traveled to Puerto Rico for winter ball, Lopez moved his family to Cincinnati for the offseason. There were specialty doctors stationed there, and Mikael required frequent trips to the hospital.
A trip to winter league was the natural route for Lopez’s maturation, the logical step to prepare him to fight for a spot in the Brewers’ rotation. Instead, he worked out on his own to keep his body in shape.
Lopez followed his breakthrough professional year with one of his worst. He won just one of his first 16 starts in 2016, posting a 6.81 earned run average in Class AAA. The Brewers organization worried about the decreased spin rate on his pitches. Late in the year, he was demoted.
Eleven months after getting a taste of the major leagues, he was back in Class AA. His plans of spending the season in a major-league rotation were a distant memory.
“That was something new for me,” Lopez says. “It was a grind every day, working hard. And then it was a grind at night with my son.
“But I had to control what I could control. There’s one thing I can never stop — and that’s doing my work. You gotta leave everything out on the field.”
Midway through the 2017 summer, the Brewers suggested a transition to the bullpen. It wasn’t a preferred spot, but Lopez made the most of it. He earned a call-up in 2017 and another in 2018.
The Royals had known of him since he was draft eligible in 2011. Their scouts liked the depth of his arsenal and his competitiveness on the mound, regardless of the assignment. So when the Brewers placed him on a short list of available players in the Moustakas trade, the Royals jumped.
They were hopeful some of his struggles of the past were a product of the thin air of Colorado. They were aware of the medical issues with Mikael that weighed on him.
In the end, they liked the player, the person and the stuff. A power fastball. A devastating curveball, when it’s on.
And they offered two things the Brewers could not — the opportunity for a reset and a place in the rotation.
“When I come from Milwaukee, (the Royals) gave me a really, really good opportunity. I can chase my dreams here,” Lopez says. “That’s where I want to be — a starter — since I got drafted. I feel comfortable here. It’s going well.”
One game doesn’t come close to equating to an arrival, of course, even if that game was nearly perfect. But the Royals like what they have seen. “He’s been great so far,” manager Ned Yost says.
Lopez figures to compete for a spot in the rotation next spring. Even if he isn’t one of the starting five, he has proven his worth in a bullpen.
His next audition comes Friday at Kauffman Stadium, a turn against the Minnesota Twins, the same club Lopez nearly held without a base runner on Saturday. The plan is for Mikael to be there.
As his professional future offers cautious optimism, so does fatherhood. Mikael has shown progress. He is able to stand for half an hour at a time. He is able to walk with the aid of his father.
Lopez cherishes those moments and has pictures of them saved on his iPhone. He pulls them out regularly, sometimes to show others and sometimes simply to offer himself perspective.
“That’s my motivation, man,” he says. “I have to get it done.”