Nighttime had engulfed Kauffman Stadium on the fall evening of September 29th, 2022. The cold air sat still among the sea of blue that stood outside the gorgeous ballpark having seen its fair share of misery in the previous four seasons. The banners, attached from the light poles illuminating the path to the gates, whipped violently from side to side. It was a chilling 45-degree night in Kansas City, although the wind made it feel about 15 degrees cooler. The lines were jam-packed and the walk from the parking lot seemed miles long for some. However, none of that mattered.
On this night, the Kansas City Royals were hosting the Tampa Bay Rays for the 2022 American League Wild Card, 7 years and 364 days removed from perhaps the most entertaining baseball game in postseason history. Tonight would encapsulate the end of Dayton Moore’s second rebuild and the beginning of an immense amount of attention that would surround the organization longer than it had when the “Comeback Kids” stole the hearts of America a short number of years ago.
The 2022 Royals were built off the solid foundation that began during the 2018 MLB draft, securing two current members of their starting rotation in Brady Singer and Daniel Lynch. The 24-year-old Lynch, showcasing an 11-8 record with a 3.22 ERA, would be toeing the slab against Rays starter and 2020 Cy Young award winner Blake Snell.
The stadium, now reaching its maximum capacity, emulated a buzzing hum that pierced the air, mimicking a feeling all too familiar before. Beginning the pre-game festivities, a familiar face emerged from the first base dugout. Repping the number 1 in a spotless home white jersey and jeans, former outfielder Jarrod Dyson strolled to the mound as the evening’s participant for the ceremonial first pitch. Displaying his career highlights upon Crown Vision, the crowd went wild. Just when it couldn’t get any better, Dyson turned towards home and paid homage to his signature “Yung Joc” dance before firing a perfect strike to his old teammate, Salvador Perez. Showing he still had the athleticism at age 38, he perfected one final backflip and waved to the crowd as he strutted off the field.
Moments away from first pitch, both teams lined perfectly across the baselines signaling the start of introductions. It was time to meet the individuals who made it possible to be in a position that seemed so drastically unachievable in recent years. After mumbling the starting nine for the American League East runner-up, Royals PA Mike McCartney’s voice turned from an unenthused tone to a bellowing shout. “Noowwww, it’s time for your Royals starting lineup”. The crowd erupted, waving their blue and grey towels that presented the postseason slogan, “Return to Royalty”. It was an electric sight that would raise the hairs on the back of the neck of any sports fan. “Let’s meet the manager of the Royals, number 28, Pedro Grifol!” In his third season since taking over Ned Yost’s position-Grifol had led Kansas City to a 90-72 record-finishing three games back the American Central Champs - the Chicago White Sox.
Rambling through the remaining positions, the stage was finally set. McCartney shouted once more. “Heeeeere come yourrrr Kansas City Royals!” The nine players, led by Lynch, scattered onto the empty diamond behind a deafening roar. Heading towards the endless outfield was one of the league’s most intriguing trios. In left field, a 24-year old Silver Slugger candidate who slashed .252/.301/.505 during the regular season with 31 home runs, good enough to earn him an appearance in the 2022 Home Run Derby at Wrigley Field, was Seuly Matias. Over in center, smooth-swinging Khalil Lee was well on his way to winning his first Gold Glove in only his second full year in the Major Leagues. Productively reducing his 38% strikeout rate from a season ago, Lee was molding himself into one of best upcoming outfielders in the American League. Patrolling right field was the super-utility man and fan favorite Whit Merrifield. Entering the final year of his contract in Kansas City, Merrifield’s bat and legs remained serviceable in batting .277 and swiping 21 bags. Unfortunately for him, he was pushed out of his regular position of second for good by Nicky Lopez in 2021.
From left to right in the infield was the best defending core Kauffman had seen its gates opened in 1973. Covering the hot corner was 2019 second-overall pick Bobby Witt Jr., who was the leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year honors. The 21-year old phenom had dismantled opposing pitching featuring a slash line of .311/.388/.501 with 25 home runs and 102 RBI’s.
Standing to his left was perhaps one of, if not the best player in baseball, Adalberto Mondesi. The league had come accustomed to his freakish abilities back in 2019 where he managed to mash 27 home runs and collect 65 stolen bases. But 2022 was a whole different kind of animal. Mondesi was in the midst of surmounting the best statistical season a player has put up since George Brett’s MVP season in 1980. Leading the league in batting average (.352), stolen bases (81), triples (15), the kid who at one point saw much of his early career in Omaha, was on pace to win Kansas City’s first MVP title in 42 years.
His double-play partner,Nicky Lopez ,had a quiet but solid year at the dish. Although he only mustered eight home runs and sporting a .257 batting average, Lopez led the team in walks (112) and led the league in defensive WAR at 3.4. Manning the other hot corner was the slender 23-year old first baseman Nick Pratto. After a cataclysmic first half in which he fell below the Mendoza Line with a .188/.234/.388 line, many had questioned if Pratto’s sophomore slump would squander the chances of the Royals claiming that top wild-card spot. However, with the doubts hovering above him, Pratto surged in the second half to finish batting .271 including boasting a .375 average against right-handed pitchers.
Receiving the warm-up tosses behind the plate was the predecessor of Salvador Perez in M.J Melendez. Stepping into a role that once employed the face of the franchise and constant recipient of Gold Glove awards, the now 6’1, 200 lb Melendez had bounced back from his woeful rookie season in which he was a member on the I-70 bus to and from Omaha. Knocking in 65 runs in 2022, the kid from Daytona Beach, Florida was methodically moving himself in the right direction with his gaudy expectations. Of course, none of that wouldn’t have happened if Dayton Moore hadn’t resigned Salvador Perez to a two-year-extension at the end of the 2021 season. Now taking the role as a full-time DH and starting occasional Sunday afternoon games at catcher, Perez’s tutelage of the younger group had been noted as a paramount part of the team’s recent burst of success.
As Melendez whipped the final practice toss from Lynch down to Mondesi at second, the former top prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays farm system, switch-hitting Wander Franco, dug into the right-handed batter’s box. The crowd clamored in unison. “Let’s go Royals!” clap* clap* clap*- clap*- clap* Again. “Let’s go Royals!” clap* clap* clap*- clap*- clap*. The echo could be heard from Power and Light where thousands had gathered to watch. Coming set at the belt Lynch hurled pitch number one. A 98 mph four-seam fastball that painted the outside corner for a strike. From the dugout suites to the top row, the stadium shook so violently from the noise it left its neighbor, Arrowhead Stadium, in awe. Baseball was back in Kansas City once again, and it was here to stay.