O'Hearn hopes changes help him stay in bigs

Salvy serves as DH in finale vs. Yanks after taking foul ball to face mask

June 24th, 2021

NEW YORK -- To fully encapsulate the change that has shown in the three days he’s been back with Kansas City after another trip to Triple-A Omaha, it would be easy to point out the two home runs he hit this week against the Yankees at the iconic Yankee Stadium.

Although the home runs are nice -- and important -- they don’t tell the full story. To do that, you have to go back to his first at-bat back in the lineup on Tuesday. It was an out against Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in the top of the first inning, a 98.6 mph liner to left fielder Clint Frazier. O’Hearn jogged back to the dugout and didn’t dwell on the out, which ended the inning and left a runner on base.

The next time O'Hearn stepped to the plate, Cole threw a changeup over the middle of the plate, and O’Hearn lined it over the right-field wall to tie the score.

“Maybe a year ago, or in the past, if I would have lined out in my first at-bat, mentally I might have been like, ‘Oh God, here we go again,’” O’Hearn said the following day, leaning against the dugout rail after taking batting practice.

“Instead I took it as a positive.”

O’Hearn has been here before; he’s had good games in the Majors. The struggle for the 27-year-old slugger has always been consistency. He’ll get into a run of power, then struggle for stretches until the Royals send him back to Omaha to work out the kinks in his swing. That’s what’s happened this year: After he began the season at the alternate training site, O’Hearn was called up on April 23. He had looked good playing simulated games while the Royals waited for the Minor League season to start, so the club provided him with more opportunities.

Unfortunately, O’Hearn didn’t do much with them. Pitchers attacked him with inside fastballs and offspeed pitches; he hit .189 between April 23 and May 27, slugged .377 in 53 at-bats and struck out 20 times. On May 28 he was optioned back to Omaha.

“I’ve been sent down a few times in my career,” he said. “Every time, I’ve had a different kind of mentality going into it. I realized that I’m not getting any younger. I need to contribute. I need to make it happen.”

In Omaha, O’Hearn got comfortable. He played every day and saw the work he was doing in the batting cage translate to the plate, and although there is a major gap between pitching in Triple-A and the Majors, he took every game seriously, knowing that time in the big leagues would come again.

With the StormChasers, he hit 12 home runs in 19 games (72 at-bats) and posted a 1.382 OPS. He was the hitter the Royals had seen before, and the hitter he himself knows he is.

“What I was doing in Triple-A was being relaxed, letting my ability come out,” O’Hearn said. “Letting all the things I’ve been working on in the cage and in batting practice and all that over a period of time, years now, come out. I think I’m almost there. Time will tell.”

O’Hearn emphasized on Wednesday afternoon that his homer on Tuesday night was just one swing and that he needs to continue the production. About an hour after that conversation, he mashed his second homer in as many days, this time a two-run shot off Yankees starter Michael King to put the Royals up, 2-0. He also had a check-swing infield single off Aroldis Chapman in the ninth inning. It was just the second hit by a left-handed batter against the Yankees closer this season, and it gave the Royals a lead.

“A lot of it is mental,” O’Hearn said. “A lot of it is freeing yourself to let your ability come out, to make a good swing. It’s that confidence. You walk into a box, doesn’t matter who’s on the mound, doesn’t matter where we’re playing, I’m going to get it done. And that takes time. Your hitting is never going to be mastered.”

The adjustments continue for O’Hearn, who’s going to get ample opportunities with Adalberto Mondesi on the injured list and Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler struggling offensively. The Royals need another big bat in their lineup, and O’Hearn is primed to be that for them -- if he stays consistent.

“I want to be here always, so every time you get called back, I’m pumped to get back,” he said. “But mentally, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s stay here this time.’”

Worth noting

After exiting Wednesday night’s game after taking a foul ball to his face mask, Salvador Perez was in the lineup on Thursday but as the designated hitter, a role he would typically assume in a day game after a night game. Manager Mike Matheny said that Perez felt better by the time he left the park on Wednesday and woke up with no lingering symptoms.