Heading into the final outing of a three-game series at home against the Cleveland Guardians, the Kansas City Royals were looking to avoid a sweep. Not only did they manage to do that and greet their day off on Thursday with a win, but they did so in high drama.
After stranding runners in innings one, four, six, seven and eight, the ninth inning posed one of the more improbable comebacks of the Royals' season. It took just one run to tie the game but considering who that run — as well as the game-winning run — came against, it meant a ton. Entering play, Guardians closer Emmanuel Clase had been on an absolute tear. Excluding his first two outings of the year, he was posting a 0.79 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 56.2 innings of work. Wednesday night's game, however, was another example of the Royals getting to him.
To start things off, Clase issued consecutive walks to Kyle Isbel and Drew Waters. For Clase, a player who had seven walks allowed all season before that, this proved to be a fatal mistake. Following a Nicky Lopez bunt that advanced Isbel to third and put him at first, MJ Melendez singled home a run to tie the game and charge Clase with a blown save. The 24-year-old reliever was then faced with a tough decision to make: hope that Bobby Witt Jr. induces a double play, or intentionally walk him and deal with Salvador Perez.
Clase chose Perez, and Melendez said he knew exactly what was about to happen.
"Honestly, yeah," Melendez said when asked if he was surprised by the Witt walk. "It's a loser's situation — you've got two of the best hitters on the team back-to-back with a man on third base. I felt like the ball game was over once I was able to get on base and kind of pass it on to Bobby and Salvy. I knew the game was over."
And so did Witt.
"I didn't know what to think of it," Witt said. "I just knew whenever Sal was going up to the plate, we're going to come home a winner. Everyone had that confidence in Sal, so we know what was going to happen."
Anyone who's followed Royals baseball in any capacity over the years knows what ensued. On an 0-1 count, Perez hit a ball into the outfield and center fielder Myles Straw was unable to throw Lopez out at home after recording an out with his catch. It was yet another walk-off opportunity and iconic moment for Perez, who is famous for having his star shine bright when Kansas City needs it the most. After the game, manager Mike Matheny said Perez was born for moments like that.
"I think Salvy realizes that this group watches him close," Matheny said. "He's earned that, and we want them watching him really close. But we've also watched Bobby turn into that player, too, who's thriving in those big situations. Salvy's born for this and born for those situations. It's exactly what we expected that he'd do."
It's been a tumultuous season of sorts for Perez, who struggled earlier in the 2022 campaign due to a mix of injuries and flat-out poor production at the plate. Since returning from the injured list following surgery to repair the UCL in his left thumb, however, he's been playing at a level many remember from his epic 2021 season. From July 29 (the day of his activation off the IL) through Wednesday's win, Perez is slashing .283/.314/.503 with a 125 wRC+ in 37 contests. The case for him being "back" is growing by the day.
For the Royals, they benefitted from the win and will almost surely benefit from their day off as well. While young players such as Melendez and Witt have been able to cement themselves as future core pieces of the team, Perez is still the main face of the club. He reminded everyone why on Wednesday, and he did so behind the utmost confidence of his teammates. In a developmental stage for the young Royals, as Matheny said, those teammates watch Perez's every move. In vintage fashion, he made yet another good one against a bitter division rival at home.