KANSAS CITY -- All Bobby Witt Jr. could do was take a deep breath, trust his preparation and simplify the moment.
Then, he let his talent play.
With the bases loaded, one out and two strikes in the bottom of the 10th inning Friday night, the Royals’ star shortstop uncorked a swing on a 101.8 mph inside fastball from Twins closer Jhoan Duran, sending it 414 feet into the left-center seats at Kauffman Stadium for a walk-off grand slam that sent the Royals to an 8-5 victory.
“That’s what Witt does,” said starter Brady Singer, who struck out a season-high 10 batters in five innings Friday. “He’s a special player. … We’re used to it around here, but for him to do that, it was awesome.”
It was the first grand slam and walk-off hit of Witt’s career and the seventh walk-off grand slam in Royals history.
It was also a moment Witt will never forget.
“Slow down the game, let him come to me and not try to make something happen,” Witt, who went 4-for-5 with six RBIs, said. “Make sure that he makes a pitch I can handle, be on time, get the foot down and put the barrel down. Let him provide the power.
“I know there are times where I felt like earlier in the game, made some mistakes, but then just stay in the game. Keep battling. Keep trying to enjoy the wins.”
This year has been a massive disappointment for the Royals, a club that didn’t have lofty expectations but certainly thought it would be better than a 30-75 record. Kansas City might have more questions than answers at the end of 2023, but one thing has been made clear this year.
Witt can be a superstar.
The 23-year-old has turned into a solid shortstop who has hit near the top of the lineup every day. It hasn’t been easy for Witt, who hit just .228 and struck out at a 22.8% clip in the first two months of the season. But he started to heat up by the end of May, and since then? He’s slashing .277/.320/.446 and striking out at just a 16.4% clip. His slam was his 17th homer of the year.
Witt’s at-bats have gotten better as his mind has gotten clearer, urging himself to simplify his game. His database of pitchers he’s faced in the league has grown, helping him when he faces those pitchers again. Like in the eighth inning Friday, when the Twins brought in newly-acquired reliever Dylan Floro to face Witt with Drew Waters on second base.
Witt faced Floro when he was with the Marlins and remembered grounding out against him to end a game. Floro is a sinker-ball pitcher; on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, after seeing three sinkers, Witt laced one up the middle.
“Having that in the back of your head, the pitchers you face, it really helps,” Witt said. “And then that’s the fun part is when they start mixing their stuff up, and you game plan against each other.”
Witt lives for competition and is beginning to thrive in the big moments. His game-tying double in the sixth on Friday was one of three runs the Royals’ scored against Twins starter Sonny Gray, who had allowed one run in 11 innings in his previous three starts against Kansas City this year.
After Royals closer Scott Barlow blew a save in the ninth, the Royals mounted a comeback in the 10th. They loaded the bases for Witt, who started his at-bat against Duran by chasing a curveball. Then he chased a fastball. Fouled off another fastball. Laid off a couple of curves in the dirt. On the seventh pitch, Duran threw a heater inside.
“You look at Witt’s first swing on that curveball, it was really ugly,” Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers said. “We tried to go to it a couple more times, it was too far up in the zone. And there, he knows we’re not going to walk him, so what’s the strike pitch he’s going to throw? It’s the fastball. So he was going to stay dead red all night.
“You just don’t really expect a guy to turn around 102. I guess guys with that quick [of] hands might have a little better chance. But you’ve got to tip the hat there.”
The 101.8 mph pitch is tied for fifth-fastest homered off of in the pitch-tracking era (2008).
“Bobby’s going to be one of the best,” Royals captain Salvador Perez said. “He prepares himself every day to come play here and play hard. He plays for the guy next to him.”
Witt takes losing hard, which has made this season even tougher. But he hasn’t given up. Nights like Friday show why, with Witt grinning as he circled the bases before being mobbed by his teammates at home plate.
“You just got to keep fighting,” Witt said. “That’s what our team did. We’re going to keep building off that, keep learning and competing and preparing ourselves every day.”