ARLINGTON — As the Royals stared at their final chance to come back and tie Tuesday’s game against the Rangers, Whit Merrifield thought the sinker he hit off Rangers closer Joe Barlow was going to be the opportunity the team needed.
It was headed for the gap in right-center field and falling fast — but not too fast for right fielder Kole Calhoun to lay out and make a diving catch. The Rangers sealed their 6-4 win over the Royals moments later in the series opener at Globe Life Field.
That’s the way it’s been going for Merrifield, who has a .346 OPS in 27 games this season, and the Royals, who have one of the worst offenses in the Majors through the first month.
“Today, it was just laughter,” Merrifield said. “I hit it, took a couple steps, and as I was running, I was like, ‘This guy’s going to catch that ball.’ I’ve gone through every emotion with it. … It’s just the way it’s been going.
“It’s been something like I’ve never seen before. The breaks I’m getting. Or not getting, I should say.”
Royals starter Brad Keller wasn’t as sharp as he has been this season; he entered Tuesday having allowed just six earned runs on 18 hits in 31 innings, holding opponents to a .168 average. He allowed six runs (five earned) over 5 2/3 innings Tuesday, including two home runs hit by Corey Seager. Keller struggled to manage the cut on his fastball and finish with his slider, a pitch the Rangers put into play 10 times.
“There were two or three that didn’t seem to get all the way through, and it just spun up there,” Keller said. “One goes for a two-RBI single, another goes for a homer. Another goes for a double down the line. Frustrating because when I make the pitch, it seems to get positive results, and when they spin like that, it doesn’t do any good.”
With three runs scored in the first inning, the Rangers’ quick lead put the Royals on the defensive and in an early hole. But every mistake the pitcher makes is amplified when the offense is scuffling as bad as the Royals’ is right now.
“We got some guys pressing. Guys are struggling,” Merrifield said. “This is our entire life. … So when it’s not going well, it mounts. And it’s a tough thing to balance when you’re going through something like this. It is what it is at this point, we are where we are, and all you can do is move forward.”
Entering Tuesday, some numbers stuck out: The Royals had a 6.1% barrel rate, tied for the fourth-lowest mark in the Majors. For a ball to be “barreled,” it requires an exit velocity of at least 98 mph. At that speed, balls struck with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees always garner “barreled” classification. For every mph over 98, the range of launch angles expands.
The Royals’ .239 expected batting average was tied for the fifth-lowest, and their .397 expected slugging percentage — which removes defense from the equation and is more indicative of a player’s skill than regular slugging percentage — was tied for the sixth-lowest. They also had a 49.6% swing rate, which was third-highest in the Majors, and a 76.1% contact rate, which ranked right around the middle of the pack.
The Royals are 28th in walks (73) but had the fewest strikeouts in the Majors (192). So they’re taking a lot of swings and making contact, but the contact they do make is not particularly good.
Despite all of that, there were signs Tuesday that the Royals categorized as progress. Kansas City did cut its deficit to two during a three-run seventh, capitalizing on two errors third baseman Charlie Culberson made. Merrifield was rewarded in the seventh with an RBI single.
Hunter Dozier, whose .244 average entering Tuesday was the third-best among the starting nine, was on base four times, with two hits and a walk.
“That’s a really good example of what we’re talking about,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Not trying to do too much. Shortening to the ball. Trust your hands. Trust your swing. You get a couple things fall for you, next thing you know, you start seeing your numbers climb, you start seeing yourself be a catalyst for an inning.”
The Royals are well aware of the numbers that surround their offense. How much that awareness translates into results remains to be seen.
“We just got to do a better job of creating opportunities,” Merrifield said. “Whatever that looks like. A walk, hit by pitch, infield single, bloop, then a double. Whatever it may be. We got to get it going. I wish I had a better answer for you.”