Nicky Lopez found the sweet spot in his Royals debut. Well, actually he found both of them.
On a day characterized by sensory overload, overwhelming emotion and anticipation, Lopez found that middle ground between heightened awareness and nervous wreck.
Then in his final at-bat of the night, he squared up a pitch from Ariel Jurado for an RBI single to left field.
Lopez, who’d been one of the top prospects in the Royals’ farm system, went 1-for-4 with a walk, an RBI in Tuesday night’s 11-5 win over the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium. He became the second Royal this season to collect a hit and a RBI in his debut, joining Kelvin Gutierrez.
“That’s one of the more emotional times of my career,” Lopez said of his thoughts standing on first base after his seventh-inning RBI single. “I was at first base looking up, seeing all the fans cheering, seeing my teammates cheer, I vividly remember looking at home plate and Whit (Merrifield) standing there cheering for me too.
“Then I looked up in the press box and saw my parents going nuts. That’s when it hit me a little bit. I was like, ‘Wow. This is crazy. This is the way I dreamed of it happening when I was a little kid.’”
Lopez’s first major-league game simultaneously served as a culmination and a starting point, intertwining years of training, games, teammates, coaches, gloves, spikes, bats, balls and ballparks with the awe, optimism and possibility of a new beginning. It’s a feeling that resonated all around Kauffman Stadium, particularly when Lopez earned his first hit.
The home crowd roared during pregame introductions and as he walked up to the plate for his first at-bat as a big-leaguer, but the seventh-inning roar was different.
Teammates, coaching staff, fans, even opponents recognized the importance of what just happened. Immediately it became a moment.
“He has a very charismatic personality, he’s very relational, loves the fans,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said before the game. “He plays hard and when you play with that competitiveness and passion, you inspire other people to want to watch you play and watch the team play and that’s what he does.”
While Moore has proudly said the organization takes great care in how it handles special career benchmarks such as a major-league debut, nobody could have foreseen how fittingly things would slide together.
Merrifield, an established player and a team leader, set his own ego aside and went to the outfield in order to clear the path for Lopez to play second base on a daily basis in the majors.
After Lopez spoke with reporters in the clubhouse before the game, he strode through the tunnel toward the stairs to the dugout. He was already practically in Merrifield’s hip pocket walking stride-for-stride as they headed out for early work on the field before batting practice.
Fittingly, when Lopez strode to the batter’s box in the seventh inning, Merrifield had just roped a RBI double for his 500th career hit. That hit also left Merrifield in scoring position for Lopez.
Before the inning, Lopez had an exchange with Merrifield.
“We were talking on the bench and he pointed up at the scoreboard and said, ‘Man, an average would sure be nice,’” Merrifield said. “Then as easy as that, talk about it and go get a hit.”
Merrifield scored on Lopez’s single. Immediately after sliding into home plate, Merrifield turned his attention to first base where he directed cheers toward Lopez. The Royals dugout clamored.
“Nicky had some great at-bats for us,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Hit it deep to left his first time up and got Whit to third to set up our first run. Glad to see Nicky get his first hit. That’s under his belt now.”
Lopez, a 24-year-old native of Naperville, Illinois, soaked up as much as he could before and during the game. He took pictures with family on the field pregame. He allowed himself a few long glances as he surveyed the ballpark, the bright lights, the fans and even the crown high atop the video board behind the center field wall.
He’d officially arrived.
“It’s the same game you know,” Lopez said. “You try not amplify it, but obviously it’s at an amplified level. You just try to stick to the plan, but just to be able to go onto the field, I’m going to remember seeing my teammates cheer for me and seeing the fans go nuts on my first hit and first RBI. I’m definitely going to remember this day for my whole life. This is unbelievable.”