Did KC Royals manager Mike Matheny make a bad call with the game on the line?
Just 18 days ago, Nicky Lopez raised his batting average to .304 with two hits against Tampa Bay. But April 20 must seem eons ago for the KC Royals’ shortstop.
Since then, and including his 0-for-4 performance in the club’s 3-0 loss to the White Sox Friday night, Lopez is hitting .076, the product of the two singles and triple, and nothing else, he’s managed in 15 games. That uncharacteristic .304 average now sits precariously on the edge of Mendoza at an even .200.
The worst moment of Lopez’s current slump, which now incudes 12 hitless games, has to be the tense one he faced in the bottom of the ninth at Kauffman Stadium Friday. Down 3-0 and caught in the throes of some superb Chicago pitching, the Royals had mounted their most serious threat of the evening by loading the bases with two outs against stellar Sox closer Liam Hendriks.
The potential tying run was on. Lopez was the batter, the game sitting squarely in his hands. A grand slam to win it was the optimal result, but one entirely improbable for a struggling player with only three big league homers to his name. A hit was almost as unlikely considering Lopez’s awful slump and the pitcher with whom he had to do battle.
Manager Mike Matheny’s options were severely limited—the Royals, who carry 14 pitchers, were down to two bench bats and only one, Jarrod Dyson, was a viable choice to hit for Lopez. That’s because Sebastian Rivero, a reserve catcher who’s on the roster only because regular backup backstop Cam Gallagher is on the Injured List, has never hit in a regular season major league game and has just eight Triple-A, and no Double-A, at-bats. Having him face Hendriks with the game on the line was too much to ask.
That left the veteran Dyson, whose .294 average, .400 OBP, and experience rendered him more than suitable for the situation. But even Dyson brought downside to the potential assignment—if he hit, and the KC Royals tied the game but didn’t win it, who would play shortstop in extra innings? Having left the contest in the ninth for a pinch hitter, Hanser Alberto was done for the night. And moving Whit Merrifield to short, where he’s surprisingly never played in the majors, would create a similar problem—who would play second? The questions weren’t unimportant.
They, were, however, questions for later, if at all. The Royals had to get the game tied before either required an answer. (Matheny would have improvised in any event). And the club desperately needed a win to snap its streak of five straight losses to American League Central Division rivals. At that moment, offense was more important than defense might turn out to be.
At the plate, Lopez wasn’t the best alternative; mired deep in his slump, he has yet to demonstrate he can handle big league pitching consistently and he’s on the roster by default because Adalberto Mondesi is on the IL. Dyson was the Royals’ best bet.
Matheny, though, stuck with Lopez. His shortstop popped out to end the game.
So, blame Matheny for the Royals sixth straight defeat? No, not really…or at least not completely. The Royals were already three runs down and facing one of baseball’s best closers; somehow rallying to score at least three more times with only one out left was a difficult, almost impossible, mission for a soft offense now scoreless for 22 consecutive innings. And Matheny was likely concerned about the possible defensive consequences of removing Lopez from the game.
Nevertheless, Dyson’s was the better bat for the moment. And the Royals needed to keep the rally going more than they needed to worry about defense. It could have been interesting if Matheny had rolled the dice and gone for broke.
The KC Royals will try to assure themselves of at least a split of this three-game series with Chicago tonight. Game time at Kauffman Stadium is scheduled for 6:10 p.m. CDT.