Witt homers again, shining through dreary finale

June 13th, 2022

KANSAS CITY -- There are times when Bobby Witt Jr.’s talent is subtle, when the things he does on the field look routine and expected.

He singles up the middle of the field with an exit velocity of 111 mph, for example. He flies around the bases, scoring from first base when the Orioles’ defense makes an infield error. He makes an incredible diving stop on the grass behind second base and fires a missile over to first base for what would have been an out if not for the ball popping out of Carlos Santana’s glove.

And then Witt’s talent is suddenly on display, for all the world to see.

The Royals’ star rookie hit a laser of a home run to the visiting bullpen at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City’s 10-7 loss to Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, giving Kansas City some life as it tried to climb out of a seven-run deficit early in the series finale.

The comeback fell flat, but Witt’s homer was the eighth of his season, putting him one shy of Salvador Perez’s team-high nine. Sunday also marked Witt’s third career three-hit game, all of which have come in his last 16 appearances since May 27. In that span, Witt is hitting .300 (18-for-60) with nine extra-base hits.

“We talk about how rare it is to see a guy hit the ball as hard as he does,” manager Mike Matheny said. “... There are so many guys in the league he hasn’t seen. It’s going to be the first look. But every time he does, you can tell he’s keeping a really good notebook of where these guys are wanting to go or where they think they can get him out and try to be ahead of it. He’s not a one-trick pony. He can hit just about everything, as long as he keeps himself in the zone.”

In the seventh inning, two batters after Michael A. Taylor went to the opposite field for his third homer of the day, Witt faced lefty Keegan Akin with two outs. Witt, who struck out against Akin when the Royals went to Baltimore in May, took a ball in the dirt on the first pitch before fouling off a changeup and a fastball.

When Akin threw another changeup in the same spot, Witt was ready for it and crushed it 108 mph over the left-field fence.

“I’m trying to be on time with the fastball,” Witt said. “Whenever I’m on time with the fastball, I’m able to catch the changeup out in front. That’s kind of what happened. Any time you’re on time with [the fastball], you can hit anything. That’s kind of how I think about it.”

Since Witt was drafted, one of the more impressive things scouts and coaches have noticed has been his ability to make in-game adjustments with his swing and approach against pitchers. That’s starting to show up more and more in the big leagues.

“The hitters that can make the adjustments the quickest are the ones who are going to have the quickest success and the longevity,” Matheny said. “And he’s able to see where they’re trying to go and make adjustments with his swing. You hear what he’s saying when he comes back after he missed one and knew that was a pitch, but then he got overaggressive because he was sitting -- it’s part of just the experience, and the more he gets, the better he gets.”

Even on days when everything else seemingly goes wrong, Witt shines, giving the Royals reassurance that the future is bright and that the talented foundation is there to win. The challenge is to not let it slip away.

Can the Royals continue to surround core pieces like Witt and MJ Melendez with the right support in the lineup? And can the pitching staff catch up?

The Royals have seen flashes of what their young rotation can be. Jonathan Heasley was dominant against the Orioles on Friday, with seven shutout innings. Daniel Lynch cruised through five innings Saturday before seeing his start fall apart in the sixth.

But Brad Keller halted that momentum Sunday, allowing five runs, including three homers, in just 1 2/3 innings. It was the shortest start since April 20, 2021, for Keller, who is supposed to be a stabilizing force in this rotation with Zack Greinke on the injured list.

The 26-year-old didn’t have a good feel for the movement on any of his pitches, and he threw 39 pitches in the second inning to prompt the Royals to pull him and turn to their already taxed bullpen.

As the Royals’ offense heats up, tallying at least 10 hits in their last five games, Kansas City's pitching has the third-worst ERA (5.18) in the Majors.

“You go through these times and try to make this a lot shorter than what it can be,” Keller said. “With how the season started and how I’m feeling right now, it’s really frustrating. But we’re going to go back, look at it and learn from it.”