KANSAS CITY -- Daniel Lynch felt like he could barely see as he ran out to the mound in front of nearly 7,000 fans at Kauffman Stadium on Monday night. He took a few deep breaths and steadied himself as he threw the first pitch of his big league career, a 94-mph fastball to Cleveland’s leadoff man Cesar Hernandez, who smoked it to center fielder Jarrod Dyson’s outstretched glove.
First pitch. First out. Now Lynch could settle in.
“Dyson told me before the game that he was playing center and to send [some balls] out his way,” Lynch said. “He said, ‘I didn’t mean the first guy.’ And I didn’t mean to let him hit it that hard, but I’m glad [Dyson] was out there. You get the first one out of the way, you can kind of take a deep breath.”
Lynch’s Major League debut wasn’t perfect in the Royals’ eventual 8-6 loss to the Indians at Kauffman Stadium, and there are certainly things he’ll work on between now and his next start. But there were flashes of why the Royals’ top pitching prospect is so highly regarded in the organization -- and why the future of the rotation could be successful for years to come.
Lynch was tagged for three runs in 4 2/3 innings, with four hits, four walks and three strikeouts. He wasn’t as sharp as he’s shown he can be, which is understandable for a 24-year-old who found out he’d be making his Major League debut a day before he took the mound. But the way he worked around trouble showed his poise, and he flashed the arsenal that has helped him become the Royals’ No. 2 prospect -- and baseball’s No. 24 prospect -- according to MLB Pipeline.
“He just pitched great,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “It was exactly what we were hoping for. He made some good pitches in the middle of their order. They’ve got some guys who can do some damage. He was smart at times and not giving in. And that was part of the game plan, too -- know when we can try to spread the zone and then getting ground balls when they needed to. It was just a very good first outing.”
Lynch’s first Major League strikeout came on a filthy slider to left-handed hitter Josh Naylor, who had to reach out across the plate and bend halfway over to try and make contact. It did not go well for Naylor, and Royals catcher Salvador Perez made sure to get the ball to the dugout for safekeeping.
Lynch clearly had a plan, going at Cleveland hitters with an elevated fastball and his changeup and slider down in the zone. He registered six whiffs on his slider, with all three strikeouts coming on the putaway pitch. He mixed in a couple curveballs, too, but mostly relied on his fastball (47 percent), which maxed out at 97 mph.
Lynch worked around trouble and hard-hit balls in every inning, escaping unscathed except in the fourth. That confidence and poise shouldn’t go unnoticed, either.
“It speaks a lot about him, just the maturity aspect of it and where he’s at,” second baseman Whit Merrifield said. “You don’t want to really see guys work in jams, but it’s good to see him in that situation, maneuver through it and come up with some pitches and get out of some tough spots.
“It’s promising to see, especially for a young guy.”
With one out in the fifth, Lynch walked Hernandez but then got the ground ball he wanted. Merrifield wasn’t able to turn the double play though with a wide throw to first base, and José Ramírez singled to put two on with two outs.
Matheny didn’t want Lynch to face Cleveland slugger Franmil Reyes -- who had been on base twice before with a walk and a 105.5 mph double -- for the third time and went to Scott Barlow. But Barlow, who has pitched well in high-leverage innings before, threw a wild pitch and gave up the game-tying single to Reyes, with both runs charged to Lynch. Then Jakob Junis, whose spot in the rotation Lynch took over, allowed five runs on two homers in the top of the seventh to put the game out of reach.
“That’s a lot to ask,” Matheny said. “You’re talking about his very first day out, talking about being in stress the entire game, talking about going third time through the order to the meat of the order. And we’ve got one of our better relievers ready to go, and we had a well-rested bullpen. All of that goes into the decision.”
Lynch didn’t have the command he wanted on his fastball, which is a big factor in how his other pitches are going to play. That’s an adjustment to make for next time.
For now, though, Lynch is taking in the moment. Monday was his first start in an official non-Spring Training game since Sept. 10, 2019, with Class A Advanced Wilmington in the Carolina League playoffs.
“I don’t feel like I commanded my fastball as well as I wanted to, but I was really happy with the way I battled and competed,” Lynch said. “That’s the most fun I’ve had competing in a baseball game in a long time. That was what I was really happy with. It didn’t go as smoothly, but I kept us in it, and I felt like I competed really well.”