Thank goodness for Whit Merrifield……maybe.
Tuesday night, Merrifield hit in his thirtieth straight game, tying the franchise record held by The Franchise, George Brett. It was the ray of light peeking momentarily through foreboding black clouds as the Royals lost for the eighth straight time, tumbling to 2-8.
The Royals are in perilous danger of submarining their entire season in the first month for the second straight year, making possible a second straight campaign where the last hundred-plus games are completely irrelevant.
Through the first two weeks of team misery, Merrifield has picked up where he left off last year, having hit in the final twenty games, and now the first ten of this year. Likely in keeping with the chip on his shoulder he proudly carries, Merrifield no doubt hears the sidebars as much of the cheers. Tying, and potentially taking down, the franchise legend’s iconic record, forged during his epic .390 1980 season, isn’t going to be hailed by all.
There are a couple of things at play here. First of all, many baseball observers don’t agree with a streak carrying over from one season to the next. I get the point, but I am not passionate on either side of the debate. It will always be noted no matter what anyway. Also, Merrifield has already had an instance this season where the feat was extended by a scoring ruling that only would have made for a man carrying a streak. But, with the current state of scoring in general, I’m not all that hopped up on that narrative either.
I said this when Kansas was looking to break their tie with UCLA for the longest conference title streak, which they ended up doing. I pointed out that perhaps remaining in a deadlock with the Bruins would be even better than moving ahead of them because you would always be mentioned in the company of the greatest college basketball dynasty ever. That was somewhat said in jest, but in the case of Merrifield, I am not joking at all. Looking in a record book and seeing your name next to Brett’s in my mind would be a lot cooler than scrubbing his name off the page.
Merrifield has at least to a small extent distracted from the issue at hand, the prospect for a lost season. Yes, it is only ten games. The defending champion Red Sox are 3-9. You expect them to recover, but just remember, Boston followed up their last title with a last place finish. The Royals sit at 2-8, lugging the eight-game losing streak, and they need a rapid turnaround, or at the very least a steadying of the waters.
They picked a real bad time to try and do it. They have five games left on the current home stand, two more with the sizzling Mariners, followed by a weekend visit by the Indians, who have currently won five straight. Then follows a ten-game road trip, including series with the Yankees and the Rays. Tonight, the Royals try to avoid a nine-game losing streak, a streak that they had at almost exactly the same time last year, sending them to 3-14 and effectively ending their competitive season. The current nosedive is the TENTH time in the last season plus, that they have lost five in a row or more.
Before the game on Tuesday, a mere nine games into the season, a major bullpen shakeup was undertaken. When that is happening on April 9th, you know the house is on fire. The danger of emphasizing that a good start was a virtual necessity has already blown up, the “it’s early” mantra ringing hollow when the other words had already been spoken.
The usual talking points are out there. “We aren’t getting the breaks”, “I have confidence in these guys”, “We know we are better than this”, etc. It’s all white noise in the context of now 172 games worth of miserable baseball. Opponents rockets flying out of the ballpark aren’t bad breaks. Walking people left and right isn’t a bad break. An .829 opponents OPS is not bad luck.
In just a handful of days we have roared past the question often asked in these situations. Will the Royals ever see .500 again? I can’t imagine even the most Pollyanna fan plunking down a single dollar on that possibility now. Calamity avoidance is the logical target. If this thing tanks again, there are going to be many, many nights that will look like Tuesday night at the K. A smattering of fans trying to enjoy little things like Billy Hamilton scoring from second on a sacrifice fly.
The standard low bar announced crowd so far has eked over 10,000. That isn’t going to change without wins. Perhaps only Merrifield making a run at Joe Dimaggio could alter that if the team doesn’t at least play representative baseball.
The joy and the curse of baseball is that it is a daily game. That is such a smile when things are even marginally good. There is something to sink your sports teeth into all the time. But when it’s bad, oh boy. Summer nights when pulling weeds, or cutting the grass, is a better alternative to enjoying a ballgame on the deck.
Whit goes for the team-record hitting streak tonight. But if it comes in another loss, it will be merely a nice footnote on a sad April night when the season continues to sink into oblivion. Let’s hope for it instead to be some kind of spark, even towards mediocrity.