Whit Merrifield’s hitting streak ends as the Royals’ losing skid continues
As the ball seemed to benignly float off Mitch Haniger’s bat toward left-center field in the ninth inning on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium, Whit Merrifield’s first impulse in right field was to pump his fist in celebration.
Because the Royals were leading Seattle 6-4 and tantalizingly close to ending a nine-game losing streak with two outs and two on for the Mariners … and a virtually certain “F-8” about to be scrawled in your scorebook for the Mariners’ outfielder.
But this is the miserable state of the union for the Royals as they absurdly, almost inevitably keep finding ways to collapse:
In swirling, on-again, off-again winds, the ball “kept pushing and kept pushing and kept pushing,” as Merrifield put it.
Next thing you know, you’ve got a gut-wrenching snapshot of the Royals season as the ball skimmed off Billy Hamilton’s glove and he crashed into the fence.
Suddenly, the game was tied, Hamilton was being carted off on his way to an MRI and the Royals stayed oh-for-April with a 7-6 loss in 10 innings. (After the game, it was determined Hamilton has a mild MCL sprain in his left knee and is “day-to-day.”)
Suddenly, the Royals are 2-10, somehow a worse start than the 3-9 beginning that led to a 58-win 2018.
“That’s just kind of (the) bizarre season we’ve had so far, stuff like that …,” said Merrifield, whose franchise-record 31-game hitting streak was snuffed out. “So it’s got to turn, it’s got to. Hopefully sooner than later.”
Trouble is, with division leader Cleveland (8-4) coming to town, it’s easier to be reminded of manager Buddy Bell’s amazing assessment after the Royals had lost 10 in a row in early 2006:
“I never say it can’t get worse,” said Bell, whose team went 62-100 after a 2-13 start.
It’s tempting to think that’s about where we are with this team, too.
Because no matter what else is going on, and there certainly are a few pleasant developments, any lead only heightens angst thanks to the ever-lingering threat of a bullpen that has been the most common denominator in this distressing stretch.
Take Thursday, for instance.
The Royals got fine starting pitching again, a trend that has largely held up, with Jorge Lopez retiring the first 11 he faced and allowing two runs in six innings before leaving with a 4-2 lead.
Huntier Dozier homered for the second day in a row as part of his first three-hit game for the Royals. Jorge Soler also homered for the second straight game while driving in three runs. Adalberto Mondesi homered, too, and the resurgent Alex Gordon (hitting .333) doubled twice.
But even after Seattle closed it to 4-3 and the Royals answered firmly and swiftly with two in the seventh, you had to fret that the menacing object in the rearview mirror — a brawny Seattle team that would become the first since 1900 to score at least six runs in 13 of its first 15 games — was lurking closer than it appeared.
So, we’re left with this: For myriad reasons, from pure financial decisions to free-agent misjudgments to trading away prospects as part of producing the glorious 2014 and 2015 seasons, the Royals are stranded in that increasingly fading afterglow now.
Any next wave of contention figures to be a few years away at best, but that doesn’t offset their obligation to find a way to make this transition time palatable.
And that’s still more about one thing than anything else: Solve the bullpen any reasonable way at all, and this still can be worth watching. Don’t, and it will sabotage the entire season.
(Alas, that almost certainly means it has to come out of some sort of in-house experiments or shuffling. The Royals simply aren’t in spending mode even as the current bullpen flux reeks a little of rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship.)
Because it’s also true that the 50-50 sort of stuff that helped afflict the Royals on Thursday will even out.
Case in point: In contrast to Haniger’s ninth-inning swing, the Royals’ Lucas Duda cracked one to right-center in the 10th that initially appeared on its way out … only to die in the wind.
“I guarantee Duda hit that ball better than Haniger hit his, just (to) the wrong part of the field,” said Merrifield, noting that odds are that even if you were serving up batting practice pitches you could expect some better luck. “It’s just that other teams can’t seem to do any wrong right now. And it’s wild, wild to see.”
That was part of a logical case he made that those sorts of things ebb and flow in the course of a season.
Never say things can’t get worse, sure.
But never say they can’t get better, either.
The shame of it is there really is intriguing stuff to see here, and even a lot to like, if the Royals simply semi-stabilize the bullpen.
Easier said than done, of course.
Meanwhile, all the rest of the team can do is keep on keeping on, trying to make their luck turn while hoping for the best out of the weak link.
“It’s not easy, but you’ve got to keep reminding yourself it’s a long season, 162 games is a long season,” said Merrifield, who has emerged as the voice of this team. “We’re … 12 games in, so what’s happening can’t continue throughout the whole season. It just can’t.”