Merrifield leads majors in hits, stolen bases

Published 9:37 am Thursday, October 4, 2018

Whit Merrifield led Major League Baseball in hits and stolen bases, only the third time that’s happened since 1945. He’s the first Kansas City Royals player with 50 extra-base hits and 40 steals since 2003. He’s the first Royal since 1980 to lead the majors in hits. He won the American League stolen base title for the second year in a row.

Incredibly, every word of that paragraph is true.

“It’s a monster accomplishment,” Kansas City manager Ned Yost said. “Leading the majors in steals is huge. But leading the majors in hits is monstrous. You look at his journey. He has become a star.”

“Opportunities like this don’t come around often,” Merrifield said. “I feel blessed to have a chance to accomplish something like this. It feels really good, a good way to end the season. It’s special.”

Merrifield made his major league debut at age 27. Lo and behold, he’s a star at 29, hitting .304 with 12 home runs, 60 RBIs and 88 runs. His averaged ranked sixth in the American League.

Heading into the regular-season finale on Sunday, Merrifield and Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman were tied for first with 191 hits. Freeman left a meaningless game after two hitless at-bats. Meanwhile, Merrifield started 0 for 3 with two strikeouts in an eventual 2-1 home loss to playoff-bound Cleveland. He had one at-bat left.

“It was all on my mind (in the last at-bat),” Merrifield said. “A lot of times when you get a hitting streak going it can take you out of your approach and turns you into swing mode. That’s what happened my first three at-bats. The last at-bat I just went back to a batter approach – see the ball and get the barrel to it. I was fortunate to do that and found a hole. I was pretty excited.”

In that last at-bat in the eighth inning, Merrifield singled up the middle to capture the hits title outright. He joined George Brett and Willie Wilson as the only Royals to lead the majors in hits. Then he swiped his 45th base, winning that title by two over Trea Turner of Washington. He ran wild down the stretch, amassing 10 steals in his last 10 starts. He won the AL steals title in 2017 with 34.

Wilson (1985), Johnny Damon (2000) and Carlos Beltran (2003) are the only other Royals to compile 50 extra-base hits and 40 steals in a season. He became the first Royal ever to lead the majors in hits and steals, and only two players since World War II have led the majors in those categories – Ichiro Suzuki (2001) and Dee Gordon (2015). The last Royal to lead the majors in hits was Wilson in 1980.

In the eighth, Merrifield was lifted for a pinch runner and received a standing ovation as he headed to the dugout.

He was a massive bright spot for a 58-104 team. The Royals did put a happier face on their last-place season by going 20-14 over the final five weeks.

“For us to win going forward, we need Whit Merrifield on the team,” Kansas City GM Dayton Moore said.

Wait, there’s more: Merrifield closed the season with a career-best 20-game hitting streak.

“It’s special to get both titles,” he said. “To say I’ve done it more than anyone else in the league is really special. This is my last chance at the stolen base one. I don’t think (teammate Adalberto Mondesi, who had 32 steals in 75 games) is going to let 45 fly next year. He’ll have that by the all-star break.

“It was hard to describe. It was really special. This community, this town is such a sports town. They know what’s going on. I got a nice ovation every at-bat today because they knew what was going on.”