How rookies are revitalizing KC Royals: ‘All of us ... are falling in love with them’

Colin E. Braley/AP
·6 min read

When Royals rookie Nick Pratto smoked a two-out walk-off home run against Boston on Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium, the giddy ensuing celebration perhaps seemed disproportionate for a 43-65 team.

Amid the post-trade deadline infusion of youth, though, that record isn’t bogging down the trajectory of the season from here.

In fact, what the record implies is suddenly quite in contrast with the sum of their revitalized parts and collective identity right now.

Because no matter how the Royals fare the rest of the season, this a team shedding its skin and morphing into something else altogether: into the shape of promising things to come through these whiz kids, who heaped it on Sunday with a remarkably rookie-driven 13-5 blasting of the Red Sox, highlighted by MJ Melendez’s six runs batted in.

To be sure, growing pains await.

But the hotwired energy has been palpable in everything from Pratto’s exuberance Saturday to the reaction around him. It was unmistakable all through the game Sunday, too, but perhaps epitomized in Nate Eaton’s hustle … and even in the Vinnie Pasquantino-Nicky Lopez “Simba Cam” bit in the dugout:

While fans were cued to hoist up their little ones, a la the Lion King, Lopez was telling Pasquantino, “Grab me, grab me, pick me up.”

So Pasquantino placed his hands on the back of Lopez, who created an optical illusion by hoisting himself up on the railing.

Afterward, they giggled about it as they watched the replay on Pasquantino’s phone and talked about spending Sunday night doctoring the video up into some sort of meme or GIF.

“It’s pretty light around here right now,” Lopez said, “which is good.”

Add it all up, and it suggests a surge of a certain childlike wonder and resilience. The sort of stuff that one way or another had faded out before more and more of the homegrown reinforcements were called up and changed the mood.

“I played with (the rookies) in spring training, but in spring training they kind of keep to themselves, pretty quiet,” said pitcher Brad Keller, who got the win Sunday after allowing one run in six innings. “So to kind of see their personalities come up here and thrive and treat this like a kid’s game, as it should be, it’s been exciting.”

Speaking with reporters after the Saturday game, Pratto reckoned it was the first walk-off hit he had had since his single for Huntington Beach beat Japan in the 2011 Little League World Series. And that really seems about right: If you Google that celebration, you might see some parallels in the pure joy of the scenes then and now.

“That (celebration Saturday) happens with a full veteran team, but not to the level of what happened last night,” manager Mike Matheny said on Sunday, later adding, “Quickly, all of us, and the whole fan base, (are) falling in love with them.”

Punctuating hints of the last few days, that fresh-squeezed juice was illustrated anew on Sunday with the third win in four days against the Red Sox.

Beyond Melendez’s dazzling production, Royals rookies amassed all 12 of the RBIs (the 13th run came on a balk that brought in rookie Michael Massey) and scored 11 — including three runs apiece from Massey, Eaton and Kyle Isbel.

The 12 rookie RBIs matched the most in club history, per the ever-resourceful research of Bally Sports Kansas City associate producer Dave Holtzman, and is the most by an MLB team since the Mets had 12 in 2010.

All of a sudden, perhaps, the future is now.

“It’s going to be like that moving forward,” said Lopez, at 27 one of the elders in the room. “I mean, they’re here. They’re here to stay.”

With a few exceptions, he added, “This is going to be our team for many years.”

If so, we might all look back at this weekend as a telling point in a season already underscored by the debut of rookie star Bobby Witt Jr.

The breakout Sunday was fashioned by six extra-base hits from rookies, albeit a couple enabled by some shoddy fielding. But it also was furnished with some telling big little things (like the team going six for eight with runners in scoring position, sacrifice flies and moving runners over) and little big things like Eaton skedaddling from the get-go on a routine fly to center.

By the time Jarren Duran lost that ball in the sun, Eaton was well on his way to third base for what was ruled a triple.

“That hustle triple was one of my favorite plays of the year …” Matheny said. “Just put your head down and go out of respect for the game.”

None of this trend is guaranteed to stick in the often fickle and fleeting twists and turns of the marathon baseball season. And it also might be considered relative in a season marked by a nearly irreversible early plummet (17-37 as of June 7) and the broader exasperation of the franchise seeming stranded between phases of a rebuild.

Heck, another swoon could be lurking soon, and young players almost certainly will face their share of slumps and funks to navigate.

Still, the dynamics look and feel fundamentally different, particularly as the young starting pitching has provided more and more reasons to hope it can ultimately prosper.

You can see it on the field and in the clubhouse, where the banter well after the game on Sunday was driven by Pasquantino, Lopez and Pratto and included Melendez and engaged oft-reserved veteran Hunter Dozier.

While Massey made the point that veterans like Dozier and Lopez have been vital to their adjustment, it’s also true that what Matheny calls a hungry and humble wave of youngsters is having an impact on those around them.

“It’s a different environment than I’ve ever experienced, because there’s so many of them that kind of walked the path together,” Matheny said. “And I think there’s some freedom for them to be themselves more so than if they were just a Lone Ranger put into the group.”

Surely conscious of not insulting traded players such as Whit Merrifield and Andrew Benintendi, Matheny measured his words somewhat on the emerging personality.

“I don’t think this has been a team low on energy,” he said. “But if you bring in different people, it’s a different energy.”

Either way, the point here isn’t about what’s been lost but what’s been found:

Finally, a truly compelling reason to watch a team (one that’s actually 27-28 in the last two months) and hope to see the kids grow up right before our eyes.

Maybe a little like we got to about a decade back.

“I look at it as maybe we’re not going to get where we wanted to this year,” Lopez said. “But we sure as hell can get some momentum going … and create an identity of who we want to be next year.”