On an October evening when most Kansas City sports fans focused on their Chiefs' game with old rival Denver, Nicky Lopez finally got the chance that only his forced departure from the KC Royals could have given him this season.
Lopez played in the first playoff game of his five-year big league career. And his introduction to the MLB Playoffs came in the most critical, tension-packed moment of his Braves' elimination game against Philadelphia — with Atlanta trailing 3-1, he pinch-ran for Travis d'Arnaud, who with two outs in the Atlanta seventh had just walked to load the bases for Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr.
That made Lopez the potential go-ahead run in a contest the Braves, down two games to one in their best-of-five National League Division Series with Philadelphia, had to win.
But Acuña flied out to end the inning. Lopez stayed in the game at shortstop, the position at which he excelled for the Royals during his superb 2021 season, but didn't get to bat — instead, he gave way to pinch hitter Vaughn Grissom with two on and two out in the ninth. Grissom struck out and the Braves, who won more regular season games this year than any other major league club, lost 3-1 and headed home for the winter. The Phillies will play Arizona in the NL Championship Series.
Atlanta's loss brought to a sudden end Lopez's eventful 2023 season. The same fate met former Royal Ryan O'Hearn when Texas eliminated Baltimore from postseason play earlier this week.
A midseason trade took this former Royal from last to first
Lopez made franchise history in 2021 when he became the first Royal shortstop to hit .300. But his far less impressive 2022 campaign — he slumped to .227 in 141 games — and the arrival of Bobby Witt Jr. made clear that his days as a Kansas City regular were over.
Maikel Garcia made things worse for Lopez. Brought up from Triple-A Omaha in May, Garcia further limited Lopez's infield playing time by claiming third base as his own (he went on to have an excellent rookie season) and, with the versatile Nick Loftin waiting in the wings, Lopez became expendable.
So it was that Kansas City chose to ship Lopez and his .213 average to the Braves in a still-panned trade deadline deal that netted the club pitcher Taylor Hearn.
Lopez flourished with the Braves. Moving from last-place Kansas City to first-place Atlanta, he hit .277 in 25 games and became a reliable role player. Chances seem good that Lopez, who's still under team control and won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2025 season, could return to the Braves next year.