The KC Royals’ game against Boston Tuesday night, a roller-coaster affair with almost too many lead changes to count, came down to one batter in the top of the ninth. Royal Ryan O’Hearn faced Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes with two out, none on, and Kansas City trailing by a run.
A few weeks ago, a one-run game left up to O’Hearn offered no hope. With his ability to hit major league pitching lost somewhere in the past, O’Hearn posed little threat and inspired even less confidence in a successful outcome.
Things were different Tuesday night in Fenway Park, though. Gone, at least for now, was the despair of having a game depend on O’Hearn’s bat. The once-promising Royal has been a force to be reckoned with since returning recently from over three weeks in the minors, the same kind of transformative exile the Royals imposed on Mike Moustakas in 2014.
In the end though, O’Hearn lost to Barnes, and Kansas City lost to the Red Sox 7-6. The second one-run loss in as many nights dropped the Royals 12 games below .500 (33-45), marked their seventh straight defeat and eighth in their last 10 games, and kept them in last place in the American League Central.
Some solace can be taken, though, from O’Hearn’s final at-bat. He joined Carlos Santana and Salvador Perez as strikeout victims in the ninth, but looked confident, purposeful, and relaxed in the box. It was for O’Hearn a stark contrast to the way he appeared before his demotion to Omaha. And that’s a good thing.
Better, though, is what his stay in Triple-A seems to have accomplished—O’Hearn is hitting again, something he hasn’t done in wholesale fashion since his rookie season in 2018, when he slashed .262/.353/.597 with a 154 OPS+ and hit 12 homers and drove in 30 runs in 44 games. He hit only .195 in 2019 and repeated the same average lasts season.
He laid the groundwork in Omaha, however, for his renewed success. After being recalled from the Royals’ Alternate Training Site in late April, O’Hearn struggled to hit .189 and, following 20 games with Kansas City, was back in Omaha by late May. He arrived there on a mission and completed it—in just 19 games with the Storm Chasers, he slugged a mind-boggling 12 homers, drove in 25 runs, and slashed .375/.451/.931.
Liking, if not loving, what they saw, the KC Royals recalled O’Hearn June 21 and he served notice of his return the next night in New York by hitting a game-tying homer off Gerrit Cole, and later a game-tying single to help the Royals win 6-5.
And he hasn’t let up. He’s hitting .333 (11-for-33) after his Omaha stint, with seven RBIs, three homers and four-multi-hit performances in eight games, and went 3-for-5 with a pair of singles, two RBIs, and his sixth home run Tuesday night:
Why is Ryan O’Hearn suddenly performing well again for the KC Royals?
What underlies O’Hearn’s rejuvenation? At least part of it, as he told mlb.com Royals beat writer Anne Rogers, is his mental approach, and confidence:
"“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, it 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.”"
Unlike last season, and that part of the current campaign before the Royals sent him to Omaha, O’Hearn looks confident and loose, like a big league hitter should. Will it last? No one knows, but he’s off to a great restart.
Ryan O’Hearn is hitting again. And that gives the KC Royals hope about his future with the club.