USA TODAY US Edition
Call-ups keep Royals in race
They are Hollywood names that belong in a romance novel or soap opera, not on a ball field.
Yet here they are, Whit Merrifield and Cheslor Cuthbert, two players barely anyone ever heard of while they were churning away in the minor leagues, now saving the Kansas City Royals’ season.
“I don’t know where we’d be without them,” Royals All- Star first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
The defending World Series champion Royals, by all rights, should be buried by now.
The afternoon of May 22 in Chicago alone should have ended their season.
It was the game in which third baseman Mike Moustakas raced back for a foul ball and left fielder Alex Gordon ran in. The one-time All- Stars viciously collided, knee- to-knee, with Gordon’s head slamming against the tarp.
A day later, an MRI revealed Gordon had a broken bone in his wrist, sidelining him for a month.
Three days later, tests on Moustakas revealed that he tore his anterior cruciate ligament, ending his season.
“You know you’ve got to keep battling, that nobody will feel sorry for you,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “But sure, you worry. You can’t help that.”
Six days after the Moustakas collision, All- Star catcher Salvador Perez was being helped off the field after Cuthbert crashed into him on a pop-up, missing a week with a strained quadriceps.
Now, just four days after Gordon returned, All- Star center fielder Lorenzo Cain went down Tuesday night with a Grade 1 hamstring strain. He’ll be on the disabled list at least through the All-Star break.
Their ever-thrifty rotation has the fourth-worst ERA in the major leagues, giving up the most home runs in baseball, while their offense has produced the fewest homers in the American League and second-fewest runs.
Somehow, the Royals (41-36) are staying in Cleveland’s rearview mirror despite the Indians’ longest winning streak since 1951 and entered Thursday a halfgame back in the wild-card race.
“This is the biggest challenge we’ve had since this run began,” said Hosmer, whose team has won the most games in the AL the last three years, with two pennants and a World Series title.
“We really haven’t had any serious injuries the last couple of years compared to most teams, but this year has been difficult. It’s been one blow after another.
“But when we brought up these young guys, I’m not going to say it woke us up, but it sparked us, because we see the energy these guys are bringing. It just gave us such a boost.”
The boost came from a minor league utility player in Merrifield, who had the greatest hitting streak to start a career since Ichiro Suzuki.
And it came from Cuthbert, born and raised on Big Corn Island, 50 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, and taught baseball by his father, a lobster fisherman.
“I don’t think anyone could have expected this,” Royals starter Ian Kennedy said. “It’s amazing what those guys have done for us.
Merrifield, 27, best known for his 11th-inning hit to win the 2010 College World Series for South Carolina, spent the last five years in the minor leagues. He thought he was going to be called up last season when Gordon suffered a torn groin muscle. He came out of the game for Class AAA Omaha, only to be told that the Royals were calling up a pitcher, Brandon Finnegan.
He thought he would make the opening-day roster with his impressive spring, only for Yost to call him into his office and tell him he simply had no room on the roster.
“He’s such a great kid, works his ass off, and was really the one guy I felt bad about sending out,’’ Yost said. “I said, ‘ Dude, I don’t know what to tell you, but you’re getting screwed here.’ ”
Merrifield was upset and disappointed but not demoralized.
“He never once complained throughout the minor leagues that he wasn’t getting a chance,’’ Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “I never got a call from his agent, a coach, a minor league manager. He just kept playing ball, and that’s what truly good baseball players do. He has done an unbelievable job.’’
Merrifield had just walked off the Chambers Bay Golf Course, home of the 2015 U.S. Open, when he got the call he has awaited his entire life. The Royals ran out of patience with second baseman Omar Infante. Merrifield promptly produced a hit in 31 of his first 36 games, the best streak at the start of a career since Suzuki in 2001, while batting .314. ” “I never lost confidence in myself,’’ said Merrifield, who has started at second base, third base and left field. “But I’d be lying if I said there were days when I didn’t think it would ever happen.
“I knew it was an uphill battle just because this team is so good. Really, it’s a dream, and I try to take a moment before every game to mentally check out, appreciate where I am and think about the road it took to get here.’’
Cuthbert, 23, ranked only as the Royals’ 10th-best prospect by
Baseball America, got his call when Moustakas went down. The Royals thought he’d be just fine defensively but worried about his offense.
Well, he not only is playing spectacular defense, but he’s also hitting .271 with seven homers and 20 RBI, with five homers in a 14-game span.
They had a parade for Cuthbert when he returned to Nicaragua from the 2015 World Series. And July 7 — the date of his major league debut last season — has been declared a holiday on Corn Island.
“This is all a dream, and everybody is so excited back home,” Cuthbert said. “You hate to see someone get hurt, especially Moustakas because he’s such a great guy, but this is an opportunity for me.
“I just want to make everybody proud. I can’t wait to show people my ring when I go home in the offseason. But I can’t wear it now. I’m too scared to lose it.”
They still have the best bullpen in all the land, anchored by All-Star Wade Davis, with the Royals winning 33 of 34 games with a lead after seven innings. No one plays better defense.
“Now, everyone’s seeing what this organization is made of,’’ Hosmer said. “It’s been rough, but we find different ways. People have counted us out before, but, you know, we like challenges.’’
We’re sure finding that out.