Merrifield homers in return

Published 9:31 am Thursday, April 27, 2017

Whit Merrifield has mastered the grand entrance.

Last year as a major league rookie for the Kansas City Royals, he got a hit in his first game, hit .360 in his first 12 games and set a franchise record with hits in his first 11 career starts. He quickly became a fan favorite at Kauffman Stadium. He would finish 2016 with a .283 average in 81 games, including 27 multi-hit games and 22 doubles.

Fast forward to 2017 spring training, and Merrifield faced adversity when he did not land the Royals’ final roster spot. The second-base job went to Raul Mondesi, a 21-year-old with tons of potential. Merrifield was sent to Class AAA Omaha. It’s been called the most surprising season-opening roster move across the major leagues.

Merrifield made the best of his situation, absolutely tearing up Triple-A pitching. In nine games with the Storm Chasers, he hit .412 with three home runs.

“I tried to not sulk on it and just go,” Merrifield told The Kansas City Star. “Guys are motivated by a lot of different things, whether it be money or fame or whatnot. But I’ve always been motivated to kind of prove people wrong. So there was definitely a chip I put on my shoulder.”

Mondesi – and pretty much all the Royals – were hitting miserably in the first two weeks of the season. So Merrifield got called up to the Show once again on April 18.

Lo and behold – with parents Bill and Kissy, sister Costner and brother Hite in attendance at Kauffman Stadium – Merrifield went deep in his second at-bat.

He started in right field and batted eighth. After grounding out to short in his first at-bat, he entered the box in the fifth with the score 0-0 against the San Francisco Giants. On a 3-2 count, he connected for a home run. Let play-by-play man Ryan Lefebvre take it from here:

“His family is watching Whit tonight back with the Royals, and he drives it to right field. (Hunter) Pence to the track … gone! Whit Merrifield … he’s back!”

Color commentator Rex Hudler: “That’s what you do. Take a heater on the outside part of the plate and hit it to one of the most difficult places for a righthanded hitter to go deep.”

Merrifield did all he could to prevent an eventual 2-1, 11-inning loss, accounting for the only run and going 2 for 3 with two walks.

“Exactly what we’re looking for,” Royals manager Ned Yost told The Star.

Merrifield walked in the ninth and singled in the 11th. In both innings, Mondesi came up with two men on, only to strike out both times.

“Last year I was trying to figure out where the kitchen was, where the training room was,” Merrifield told The Star when asked to compare last year’s major-league debut with last week’s return. “Had a lot of things going on. It felt like home (tonight). It felt good to be back home and back out there and competing with my brothers.”

Three days later – with Mondesi going 0 for 15 over five games, his average falling to .103 and his strikeouts up to 16 in 39 at-bats – the club optioned him to Omaha along with other roster moves.

“He was starting to get overwhelmed a little bit,” Yost said. “He was putting way too much pressure on himself. You could see it in his face a little bit. We go with guys until they start to get overwhelmed, and then it’s time to let them go back and hit reset.”

On Sunday, Alex Gordon was moved from leadoff to sixth in the order, with Merrifield assuming the top spot. Through six games, Merrifield was hitting .263 (5 for 19) with a triple, a homer, a stolen base and two walks.

The 7-11 Royals are in a horrid offensive slump, hitting .206 with 2.5 runs per game.