Kansas City Royals’ heralded rookie Bobby Witt Jr. continued to make himself at home at Target Field and played the part of Twins tormentor typically reserved for Salvador Perez. With Perez on the sideline — but nearing a return — Witt flirted with hitting for the cycle.
Unfortunately for the Royals, Witt’s stellar offensive day came in a 10-7 loss to the Minnesota Twins in front of an announced 21,841 in the second game of a four-game series at Target Field on Friday night.
The series is now even at one game apiece heading into Saturday afternoon’s game. First pitch is scheduled for 1:10 p.m. on Saturday.
Perez, who remains on the injured list with a thumb sprain, has the most home runs by a visiting player at Target Field since it opened in 2010 (19), also his most in any park outside Kauffman Stadium. Witt appears to be willing to pick up that mantle.
Witt, who drove in the winning run in the eighth inning on Thursday night for the Royals (15-29), went 3 for 5 with a home run, a triple, three RBIs, two runs scored and a stolen base on Friday.
“It’s been good,” Witt said of his first taste of hitting in this ballpark. “I’m getting pretty comfortable at every place I play at.”
Witt, MLB.com’s top prospect entering this spring, has hit in seven consecutive road games. Of his 38 career hits in the majors, 19 have been extra-base hits including 12 of 16 since May 11.
“It’s pretty insane,” Lopez said of Witt. “He’s probably one of the better players I’ve ever seen. Just how explosive he is, and he’s a great kid on top of that too.”
Royals infielder Lopez was on base four times. Lopez went 3 for 3 with a walk, an RBI and a run scored. Emmanuel Rivera went 2 for 4 with a double, a walk and an RBI. Hunter Dozier (1 for 3, walk) drove in a run, and Whit Merrifield (1 for 4, walk) scored a run.
Royals rookie catcher MJ Melendez went 1 for 4 with a walk and a home run. He has now reached base safely in 13 of his 17 career starts.
Keller gets in a hole early, Payamps struggled late
Royals pitching has now allowed opponents to score 10 runs or more eight times this season, the most in the majors. They allowed 10 such games all last season.
Royals starting pitcher Brad Keller (1-5) allowed six runs on 11 hits, including two home runs, and three walks in four innings. Four innings marked his shortest outing of the season. The six earned runs were a season-high for Keller.
The Twins took advantage of Keller’s early struggles and sent 10 batters to the plate in the first inning. Three batters into the frame, they’d taken a two-run lead on Jorge Polanco’s fifth home run of the season, a two-run blast into the right-field stands. Keller left a 1-0 changeup over the heart of the plate to Polanco.
After they got the big, loud hit to put the first two runs on the board, the Twins put five consecutive men on base with two outs via a string that went single, walk, RBI single, RBI single, walk. Keller threw 33 first-inning pitches as the Twins built a 4-0 lead.
“It got out of hand pretty quick,” Keller said. “Leadoff base hit. Got another out, then hung a changeup for a home run. Then a couple hits ensued right after that. I just couldn’t stop the bleeding quick enough. I’ve just got to be better than that. I can’t let a four-run inning like that happen.”
Lopez started a three-run third inning for the Royals with a one-out single to right field. Merrifield followed with a single up the middle to bring Witt up with two on and one out. Witt drilled a two-run triple high off the wall in center field to instantly cut the Royals’ deficit in half.
The next batter, Dozier, lined a single into left field to score Witt, bring the Royals within a run and give Keller three runs worth of support for the first time in a start this season.
“I think it was just a good job by us putting together good at-bats and stringing some things together,” Lopez said. “Hitting is contagious. You see a guy in front of you have a good at-bat and it kind of trickles down. We had a lot of guys who had good days today.”
Lopez delivered a game-tying single in the fourth inning after Ryan O’Hearn singled and Rivera walked to start the inning. Lopez entered the day having gone 1 for 13 on the road trip, but he played a key part in getting the offense going on Friday night.
The tie didn’t last long as Keller gave up a solo homer in the bottom of the fourth to Twins star shortstop Carlos Correa as well as a sacrifice fly by Trevor Larnach later in the inning. The Twins led 6-4 after four innings, and Keller’s outing didn’t extend into the fifth.
The Royals closed to within a run, 6-5, on Witt’s homer in the seventh off reliever Joe Smith.
The Royals got no closer as relief pitcher Joel Payamps gave up four runs in the bottom of the eighth.
“He had some hard-hit balls, but he had a chance to get out of that too,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said of Payamps. “We’ve got two outs and an 0-2 count. That’s that time when we talk about expanding the zone. We watched it happen last night and how effective that can be especially after he made two really good pitches to get to the 0-2 count. Then made a mistake pitch that got to the middle of the plate, and they made us pay for it.
“Then it was hard to turn it off after that. But he’s had a good season for us. It’s a different situation. It’s hard, but we need somebody to step up and pick up when we know we’ve got a guy like Scott (Barlow) who is going to be down after what he did last night.”
Melendez hit his fourth homer of the season in the ninth inning, and Rivera smoked an RBI double off the left-center field wall to make the score 10-7.
Royals offense making strides
The Royals had scored an average of 3.2 runs per game through the first 29 games, but they’ve seen a resurgence offensively of late. Going into Friday night’s game, they’d batted .267 with a .778 OPs in their previous 14 games.
With two home runs on Friday night, they’ve now hit 20 home runs in their last 15 games. They’ve scored an average of 4.93 runs per game during that span.
“It’s great to see,” Lopez said of the improved offense. “It’s good that some guys are turning it around. (Andrew Benintendi) is obviously still doing his thing too. People are just taking advantage of when they’re in the lineup. It’s good to see.
“We have yet to put together that totally complete game where defense, offense, pitching, everything is clicking. That’s why we play 162. I’m excited to see it. When we do do all of that together, it’s pretty fun to watch. I think we’re really close.”