Royals jump on Braves early and start final homestand with a 9-6 win

Royals rookie infielder Nicky Lopez’s three-hit night led an offensive barrage that included 12 hits, while he and rookie outfielder Bubba Starling combined to hit four doubles and drive in four runs.

That thump from the bottom of the order — Lopez batted ninth and Starling seventh — kept the offense rolling as the Royals beat the Atlanta Braves, who’ve already clinched the NL East title, 9-6, in the first game of the season-ending homestand front of an announced 16,688 at Kauffman Stadium.

The Royals (58-100) improved to 3-0 against the Braves (96-62) this season, and they can sweep the season series with a win on Wednesday night.

“That’s big,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Those young guys feeling good, finishing strong, hitting the ball well. Both guys have gone through a little bit of a struggle here lately, but both guys are swinging the ball really well.”

Whit Merrifield’s 13-pitch at-bat that resulted in a double to start the bottom of the first got the Royals off on the right foot as eight of the nine hitters in the starting lineup had at least one hit in the game, and Ryan McBroom and Starling each also scored twice. Jorge Soler also had two hits, including a double.

“That set the tone right there,” Starling said of Merrifield’s at-bat. “Everybody was excited. Great all-around win.”

Starling, who was a Triple-A All-Star for Omaha, is batting .217 through his first 55 games in the majors. He has had ups and downs as he’s attempted to make the adjustment to the big leagues for the first time in his career.

The former first-round pick out of Gardner Edgerton High School hopes to finish strong and carry some momentum into the off-season and build on his first taste of the majors.

“It’s been up and down, but the more I keep facing this pitching, I can’t express it enough, I’m starting to get more comfortable,” Starling said. “There’s a lot of work I have to do in the off-season and come back up here, but it’s getting better.”

Lopez, who’d been hampered by a hand injury earlier this month, went 5-for-10 with five runs scored in the previous series against Minnesota.

Similarly to Starling, he’d enjoyed a tremendous season statistically in Triple A prior to hitting the steep learning curve of the majors.

“I’ve been focusing a little bit more,” Lopez said. “Seeing better pitches. Just enjoying the game. I kinda lost sight of that a little bit when I was struggling. I just went back to the basics, lowered my hands a tiny bit but went back to the basics to have fun. I’m up here for a reason. I did stuff to get here. It was going back to that.”

The Royals scored the game’s first six runs, including a five-run third inning.

After Merrifield scored on a Hunter Dozier sacrifice fly in the first, the Royals plated five courtesy of three hits, a walk and a hit by pitch in the third.

Alex Gordon’s RBI single with two men on started the scoring in the frame. After McBroom got hit by a pitch, Ryan O’Hearn’s sacrifice fly drove in the second run of the inning.

Starling blasted a two-run double in left-center field, advanced to third on the throw to the plate, and scored when Braves catcher Brian McCann’s throw to third veered off target.

The Braves got a run in the fourth on a Nick Markakis RBI double and another two in the fifth on Francisco Cervill’si solo home run and a bases-loaded walk by Markakis to pull within three, 6-3.

The Royals answered right away in the bottom of the fifth with a pair or runs thanks to an O’Hearn RBI double and a Lopez RBI single. They continued to tack on runs in the seventh when Starling scored on Lopez’s second double of the night.

Royals pitcher Danny Duffy (7-6) allowed three runs on five hits and two walks in five innings. He also struck out five.

The Royals led by as many as six runs, 9-3, but the Braves scored three runs in the final two innings.

The two-game set wraps up on Wednesday night. Left-hander Mike Montgomery (3-9, 5.00) will start for the Royals, while the Braves list Mike Soroka (13-4, 2.60) as their scheduled starter.

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.