Whit Merrifield on walkoff hit: 'I try to soak in those moments as long as I can'
Entering the bottom of the ninth inning of Friday night’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Royals were down 4-1 and there wasn’t much reason to believe the situation would change.
After all, a sellout crowd had watched Blue Jays pitchers limit the Royals to five hits and one run over eight innings; there was no reason to believe the Royals would come up with four runs in the ninth.
Unless you’ve watched this team before.
Eric Hosmer’s at bat started the ninth-inning rally
Blue Jays reliever Ryan Tepera entered the game with two outs in the eighth inning and used five pitches to strike out Lorenzo Cain. Tepera was then asked to go through an up-down: throwing, sitting, then throwing again.
Tepera was sent out to start the ninth inning and the first batter he faced was Eric Hosmer. After two pitches Hosmer was down 0-2, but then went on to foul off six pitches and saw a total of 10 pitches before lining out to right field.
Tepera had thrown 15 pitches and not one of them was in the heart of zone; every pitch was either on a corner or off the plate. But a ten-pitch at bat is tiring and Tepera’s next two pitches showed it.
His first pitch to Salvador Perez missed the zone down and, when Tepera tried to raise his sights, he threw the next pitch right down the middle.
Salvador Perez smoked it.
Dwight Smith Jr. had a rough night on defense
Coming into Friday night, Toronto’s left fielder Dwight Smith Jr., had played a total of 10 games in the big leagues.
When rookie outfielder make it to the majors, they often struggle with big league ballparks; for many of them it’s the first time they’ve played a game in a stadium with a third deck.
High fly balls aren’t a problem: the ball clears the upper deck and the outfielder has a dark sky in the background, but low line drives are a different story.
The third deck means the field lights are higher and low line drives might never come out of those lights. And rookie outfielders have to learn to track a ball with an upper-deck crowd in the background.
None of this is easy and Smith was struggling.
The Royals scored a run in the seventh inning when Smith missed a Salvador Perez line drive, Whit Merrifield doubled in the eighth when Smith had another line drive go off his glove and now, in the ninth, Perez hit another ball in Smith’s direction.
Once again the ball went off Smith’s glove and Perez wound up on second base with a double.
Mike Moustakas popped up for the second out of the inning and, with Brandon Moss at the plate, it was reasonable to believe Tepera could finish the game; but Moss saw nine pitches and walked.
A mound visit bought Tepera time to get his breath back and he was allowed to face Alcides Escobar. The Royals shortstop hit a flare into right center, it dropped, Perez scored and suddenly the tying run was on first base and the winning run was at the plate.
Aaron Loup, Alex Gordon and first-pitch hitting
Left-handed reliever Aaron Loup was brought in to face Alex Gordon and the Jays pitcher wanted to get ahead in the count. Pitchers tend to throw first-pitch fastballs to get ahead and smart hitters look for them.
When batters put Loup’s first pitch in play they hit .383; when Gordon puts a first pitch in play he hits .351.
Maybe we should have seen it coming.
Loup threw Gordon a first-pitch fastball, Gordon hit a line drive up the middle, Brandon Moss scored and now the Royals were down by just one run.
The tying run was on third, the winning run was on first and Whit Merrifield was at the plate.
Jason Grilli fell behind in the count and gave Merrifield a hittable fastball
Right-hander Jason Grilli was brought in to face Merrifield, but after four pitches was behind in the count 3-1. Walk Merrifield and Gordon would move into scoring position; the Royals would then be a single away from winning the game.
So Grilli threw a fastball to make sure he threw a strike and Merrifield was ready for it; Whit lined it into left field, in the general direction of Dwight Smith, Jr.
Watch the replay and it’s clear Smith would have needed a great jump and a good route to make the catch and he got neither. Smith started moving laterally, then realized the ball was over his head and finally started going back.
The catch might have been impossible with the best of routes, but the one Smith took made sure the ball dropped safely and left Smith chasing the ball to the fence. That took time and, meanwhile, Alex Gordon circled the bases to score the winning run.
Some good hitting, mixed with some bad defense, allowed the Royals to win their 36th game of the season.
The Royals are back to .500
Ned Yost, the Patron Saint of Patience, has said there was no reason to get excited until his team made it back to .500 – and now they have. The Royals have overcome a dreadful start and are now three games out of first place with 90 games to play.
If the Royals can score four runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win a ballgame, anything seems possible.
So go ahead and dream a little.