Melendez steps into spotlight as young Royals win again

August 11th, 2022

KANSAS CITY -- As soon as MJ Melendez knew that the ball he just crushed was going to clear the fence for the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning Wednesday night, he turned to the Royals’ dugout.

Melendez pointed both hands to the ground, yelling at his teammates and feeling the emotion reciprocated from the players going berserk in the dugout.

This was their house, the gesture seemed to insinuate, and no lead was safe.

“In the moment, hyped up for the team,” Melendez said. “I knew once we got that lead, we weren’t giving it back.”

Melendez was right. His 14th home run of the season -- a lefty-on-lefty jack off White Sox reliever and former Royal Jake Diekman -- gave the Royals a lead they would not relinquish in an 8-3 comeback victory in which their dynamic rookie-led offense poured it on in the final three innings of an emphatic win.

This was another example of what the Royals are envisioning as their future with a young core that has quickly and loudly arrived in the big leagues. In the past two months, Kansas City is 26-25 after beginning the season 20-41.

To be clear, the Royals still have a long way to go, and their current stretch doesn’t negate their 46-66 record. But the foundation is being built, which is what the second half of 2022 is all about.

“There’s a vibe in there, and that usually comes along with playing better baseball, stacking up some wins,” manager Mike Matheny said. “They’re in a spot right now where they trust each other, and that, ‘Next man up,’ thing. I’m going to get my job done, you’re going to get yours done, and then they celebrate.

“They celebrate pretty hard. I love it.”

While the momentum should have been on the White Sox side when they took the lead with three runs in the top of the sixth inning, the Royals kept it on theirs for the bottom of the frame. The energy flowing in the dugout seemed different than what’s been expected.

“I feel like we’re never really out of a game,” Melendez said. “Especially a close game like that. We’re finding opportunities to get the job done, and it really doesn’t matter who’s on the opposite side of the field.”

Second baseman Michael Massey certainly wasn’t afraid to exact some revenge after his error in the top of the sixth.

Starter Kris Bubic cruised through five innings armed with what was perhaps his best fastball of the season, elevating it at times and generating lots of weak contact. Bubic entered the sixth inning at 67 pitches, but he got in a jam with the bases loaded and one out. Matheny let the lefty face left-handed-hitting Gavin Sheets, and Bubic got the ground ball he wanted, right to Massey.

Except it was hit with an exit velocity of 106 mph, and Massey booted it, allowing two runs to score and flipping the lead.

“I wanted to make that play for Kris,” said Massey, who won a Minor League Gold Glove in 2021. “He pitched his butt off, gave us a chance to get out of that inning with the double-play ball, and I just missed it.”

Bubic exited after 5 2/3 innings, and the White Sox had a two-run lead. Not for long.

Salvador Perez -- who, for all the rookie talk, made his veteran presence known Wednesday with three hits and two RBIs -- made it a one-run game with a double in the sixth, scoring Bobby Witt Jr. from first base.

With runners on the corners, Massey put together a high-quality at-bat against former Royals World Series-winning ace Johnny Cueto that ended with a line drive into center field that tied the game at 3-3.

“It was good to see him put that behind him and say, ‘Now what?’” Matheny said. “He went up with a really good approach. We’ve watched him do this now enough to know it’s not a fluke. … Just a nice solid approach of using the field. We needed that at-bat right there.”

The Royals ran it up from there. After a four-run eighth inning, the offense finished with 15 hits, including multihit nights from Melendez, Witt, Perez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Hunter Dozier and Kyle Isbel. The bullpen threw 3 1/3 perfect innings to shut the White Sox down.

And the Royals kept the good vibes going from Kauffman Stadium.

“I think the confidence is probably at a season high throughout the team right now,” Bubic said. “We’re going inning-by-inning, like, ‘OK, we have a chance to do some damage this inning,’ or, ‘OK, from the pitching side, this is an inning I can shut these guys down right here.’ I think we just feed off that in the clubhouse, we feed off that in the dugout, on the field.”