'They're unbelievable': Witt leads defensive masterclass in walk-off win

2 years ago

KANSAS CITY — As Collin Snider slung a slider toward Oscar Mercado in the top of the 10th inning on Saturday afternoon, Bobby Witt Jr. stood on the tips of his toes near third base, knowing what he needed to do if the ball was hit toward him.

When the ball came scorching at him on the dirt, Witt let his instincts take over.

The Royals’ third baseman and MLB’s No. 1 overall prospect ranged to his right, sliding while backhanding the ball. Then, still halfway on the ground and spinning his body toward home, he flung the ball toward catcher Salvador Perez, who fielded it smoothly, torqueing his body around to tag out Owen Miller and save what would’ve been the go-ahead run.

“What can I say?” said shortstop Adalberto Mondesi. “You don’t see those plays often in the game. Gold Glove at home plate. Bobby’s starting the season that way.

“This guy can do everything.”

The jaw-dropping and unthinkable play set up the Royals’ 1-0 walk-off win in the 10th inning over the Guardians at Kauffman Stadium, a game won on the mound and in the field before Mondesi’s walk-off single up the middle against Cleveland closer Emmanuel Clase. The clutch defense by Witt and Salvy earned the duo Electric Play of the Week honors presented by Chevrolet on Monday.

Kansas City is now 2-0 this season. Those two wins have come because of the pitching and defense — two areas the Royals knew would have to be solid to win in 2022.

“Defense wins ballgames,” Witt said. “You saw that today, and our pitching staff was unbelievable from top to bottom. Whenever a ball is hit in play, you got guys making plays.”

Starter Brad Keller set the tone and was excellent in his season debut, throwing six scoreless innings and allowing just two hits, walking one and striking out five.

What Keller showed Saturday is the key to his season: Throw the ball in the strike zone and let the defense play behind him. Too often in 2021, Keller tried to nibble around the plate, attempting to making perfect pitches.

Saturday showed what can happen when he dares hitters to make contact.

Mondesi started two outstanding double plays in the first and the fourth, and later, in the eighth inning, Andrew Benintendi made a Gold Glove-caliber catch, scaling the wall in the corner of left field.

“You look around our infield and outfield — we got Gold Gloves all over the place,” Keller said. “… Got to let them work. They did an unbelievable job all day. It’s really refreshing and something everyone knew they would do, and for some reason, I didn’t give them a chance to work last year. Trying to keep that mentality going forward.”

After his day was done, Keller handed it off to a lights-out bullpen. Dylan Coleman came up big in the seventh. Amir Garrett and Taylor Clarke made their Royals debuts and combined for the eighth inning, with Garrett getting two outs and his 300th career strikeout with a nasty slider against Yu Chang.

Clarke followed with a filthy slider of his own against Austin Hedges to end the frame. Josh Staumont was handed the ninth, dropping a hammer at the bottom of the zone to get Franmil Reyes swinging and end the inning.

“They were nails,” Witt said of the Royals bullpen.

With the game still scoreless heading to extra innings, manager Mike Matheny turned to Snider in the 10th inning for his Major League debut.

“No pressure, not at all,” Snider said, with a grin. “Just the game on the line.”

But the Guardians were unfamiliar with Snider. He also has a ground-ball sinker, which gave the Royals confidence that the infield could make plays with a runner on second. And, Matheny noted, Snider fields his position well.

“Those all go into that extra inning thought process,” Matheny said. “What he did is he came in and made quality pitches. His defense made plays behind him.”

With one out and Miller on second, Ernie Clement lined a ball into the gap between shortstop and second base. Mondesi ranged out to snag the ball, and while he couldn’t get the out, it held Miller at third base to save a run — and set up Witt’s play.

As Mercado stepped into the box, Perez brought the infield to the mound. They reiterated Miller’s wheels — the infielder had an average sprint speed of 29.1 feet/second last year, which ranked in the 94th percentile — and that the play had to be at home.

“I knew there could be a possibility of the ball coming to me,” Witt said. “I know they’re going on contact, too. I knew I had to get to Salvy because I knew he was going to make a play on it.”

Snider put the finishing touches on his outing with his first career strikeout, and Mondesi ended the game with his first hit of the season to get Snider his first Major League win.

Their defense flashing gold, the Royals only needed to scratch across one run.

“I knew [the defense was] good coming into this, and for that to be my first experience with it, how could you not trust those guys?” Snider said. “They’re unbelievable.”