HOUSTON -- When Bobby Witt Jr. grabbed his right hand in pain after a 97 mph fastball squarely hit his right knuckle in the top of the ninth inning on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, those tuning in likely held their breath in anticipation, hoping the star rookie wasn’t severely hurt.
There was good news on that front following the Royals’ 9-7 loss to the Astros. Initial X-rays done at the stadium were negative for fractures on Tuesday night, and both Witt and the team seemed optimistic. But based on the symptoms Witt was experiencing after the game, including swelling, there may be additional tests done, and he’s considered day to day.
“Just glad for [the good results],” Witt said, sporting a large ice pack on his right hand postgame. “We’ll move on from there.”
With the Royals trailing by two runs in the ninth inning, Witt faced Astros reliever Rafael Montero and got into a 2-2 count before Montero challenged Witt inside. With as much movement as Montero’s sinker has, Witt saw it was coming at him, and he tried to get out of the way. The ball hit Witt’s right hand, but he swung the bat, so the umpires ruled it a foul ball.
Witt’s hand had swelled quickly enough for manager Mike Matheny to take Witt out of the game and have Ryan O’Hearn finish the at-bat, whiffing on the next pitch for a strikeout.
“He wanted to [stay in],” Matheny said. “Without knowing what we’re dealing with, it’s just not a good move. And after seeing how it did square him up, how swollen it was, you don’t want to take an extra swing. … Squared him up pretty good. There was a lot of swelling right away. Not a great spot.”
The Royals will assess Witt on Wednesday to determine his availability, hoping he can stay on the field. One doesn’t have to look further than Tuesday’s game to see the impact the young phenom already has had on Kansas City.
The 22-year-old shortstop made two eye-popping plays, hit his team-leading 12th home run of the season and drove in three runs to lead the Royals offense, which did all it could to pace with the Astros before losing the second game of this four-game set. The Royals have scored 13 runs in the past two games and have lost both. Starter Zack Greinke, facing his former team for the first time on Tuesday, allowed six runs on 10 hits -- including two homers -- in five innings, and the Astros hit two more home runs off Jackson Kowar in the final three innings.
But the Royals’ dynamic duo in Witt and catcher MJ Melendez shined through the pitching implosion. Melendez hit his third home run in the last two games with a 391-foot blast to left-center field after entering this series mired in a 2-for-23 slump at the plate.
“I feel the best I’ve felt this year,” Melendez said. “Just relaxed, confident. Just looking to continue that. I feel really loose and relaxed at the plate. With time, being in the big leagues for a little bit, seeing more pitchers, that’s kind of what makes me feel a little bit better now than at the beginning. Mentally, more than anything.”
“Just watching his approach, it’s simple right now,” Matheny added. “Same with Bobby, when they don’t try to use too much body and just use their hands, they both have so much backspin carry on the ball when they find a barrel.”
Witt (12) and Melendez (nine) now lead active Royals players in home runs. Witt's latest was a 428-foot homer off Astros starter Luis Garcia, smoking a fastball 109.7 mph off the bat into left-center field.
Plus, Witt is making plays all over the diamond; he made an excellent tag to catch Jeremy Peña stealing in the first inning and a heads-up double play on Kyle Tucker’s liner up the middle in the fourth, when Witt caught it behind second base and threw out Alex Bregman tagging at first.
“Any time the ball is hit in that area, [Witt is] going to be able to make a play on it,” Melendez said. “Special player. One of the best players I’ve ever played with. You see the ball hit off the bat, and with him out there, you know there’s probably a good chance he’s able to make a play like that.”
Even with the rise of Seattle’s Julio Rodríguez and Houston’s Peña in the first half of the season, Witt and Melendez will likely see their names trend upward in American League Rookie of the Year voting.
The Royals are 29-50 after Tuesday and last in the AL Central. But it’s easy to see the future the organization is building toward, especially with the lineup. A core nucleus of hitters is beginning to emerge.
And that’s why all eyes were on Witt as Tuesday’s game finished. He, at least, didn’t seem too shaken.
“It’s the third time I’ve been hit on this hand,” Witt said. “I’ve luckily been able to come back from those, I trust our trainers and staff with what they do. So I'll try to get some sleep, try to get ready for tomorrow.”