TORONTO — Nicky Lopez, the scrappy homegrown spark plug out of nearby Creighton University with stellar numbers in the minors and a youthful exuberance and joy for the game couldn’t get to the majors fast enough for some Royals faithful.
With the club struggling early, fans clamored for Lopez’s promotion for weeks before to his arrival. A 5-foot-11, 175-pound left-handed hitter, Lopez debuted his sweet swing in May to much fanfare. He got off to a hot start, and then … baseball happened.
Those age-old baseball cliches live on for a reason — they’re tried and true. The one about it being even more difficult to stay in the big leagues after completing the incredibly hard task of reaching the big leagues, well, that applies to 24-year-old now former prospect.
“It’s like jumping in bed and getting comfortable,” Royals manager Ned Yost said of Lopez. “He’s jumped in the bed. Now, he’s trying to get comfortable, trying to get the pillow right.”
Lopez, a former fifth-round draft pick, enters this weekend batting .237 with a .280 on-base percentage since joining the major-league club (38 games). That’s still a significant way off the .353 average and .457 on-base percentage he’d posted this season for Triple-A Omaha, but acclimating to the majors is a process.
After getting called up on May 14 and collecting his first hit and first RBI on the same play in a magical first game in front of the Kauffman Stadium fans, Lopez rode the wave of energy and emotion of finally reaching the majors and all the career firsts he’d dreamed of accomplishing.
He went 12-for-37 (.324) with a .405 on-base percentage through his first nine games with the Royals. But he eventually, and not surprisingly, cooled off.
Games 10 through 24 were the not-so-magical welcome-to-the-big leagues stretch. Lopez batted .131 with a .145 on-base percentage, 11 strikeouts and one walk, three runs scored and three RBIs in those 15 games.
“He’s a young guy in the big leagues for the first time,” Yost said. “He’s going to have ups. He’s going to have downs. I’m not evaluating every game that he plays or if he goes 0-for-8. I let him play. I let him get through this right now. We continue to work every day in the cage and all of his early work and everything, but he’s progressing fine.”
Thirty-eight games into his big-league tenure, the Royals aren’t looking to make any big changes or tweaks with Lopez. Yost stressed that he has no intention of over-analyzing the performance of a youngster like Lopez.
The two biggest things the Royals staff can provide Lopez right now are playing time and experience.
“The big change comes in understanding just to relax and let it happen, play your game, quit pressing, quit trying so hard,” Yost said. “Your natural ability is there. That’s what got you here. That’s what will keep you here. You start to press a little bit and think you’ve got to do more, that never works. Then you finally sit back and say’ ‘I’m going to take it easy. I’m going to play my game.’ Then they start to come out of it and they start to play better.”
Since June 13 (14 games), Lopez has batted .296 with 12 runs scored, one home run and four RBIs. He’s struck out nine times and walked just two walks for a .333 on-base percentage. He hit his first homer at his old college stadium in a nationally-televised game on ESPN on June 13.
“I’m getting a little bit more confident,” Lopez said. “I’m getting a little more comfortable here in the big leagues. It took me a little bit to get used, but I’m feeling a little more comfortable. I’m the type of player that feeds off confidence too. I definitely have some more confidence, and I’m just looking to help my team anyway I can.”
Late-game at-bats earlier this week served as anecdotal evidence of Lopez’s increased comfort.
Monday night, he hit an RBI double in the eighth inning to tie the score against the Cleveland Indians in a game that the Royals eventually lost in extra innings. Tuesday night, he hustled to beat out an run-scoring infield single in the ninth inning to help set the table for Hunter Dozier’s game-changing grand slam.
Lopez has still been in the majors less than two months. His modus operandi throughout the minors has been to fight through early struggles at each new level and then hit his stride as he plays more.
For the final months of the season, he’ll experience a lot of newness. New cities, venues and opposing pitchers.
“Every single day, every single new park that I go to, it’s going to be that wow factor,” Lopez said. “In Seattle when we went there, I took in the ballpark and it was unbelievable. Every new place we go, I’ll still have that until I have a year under my belt.”
He’ll lean on a daily routine that is slowly starting to feel not so new. Lopez admits he wasn’t as focused before games in the minors as he’s become since his promotion. Daily preparation has become an emphasis.
In the minors, he didn’t have quality control coach Pedro Grifol to break down every opposing pitcher with before each game. He does now. In Triple-A, he didn’t always hit in the cage before each game. He’s made that a daily habit.
Most of all, he didn’t have the daily example of big-leaguers surrounding him as they do now.
“(A daily routine) is something that early on I didn’t have, I didn’t really establish,” Lopez said. “It’s common with new guys that are coming up, you’ve got to establish a routine. … Just watching the other guys in the clubhouse and how they go about their business and the routines they go through, Pedro helped me out a lot, Terry (Bradshaw) did, the guys as well.
“High-A to Double-A, Double-A to Triple-A, Triple-A to here, it took me a little bit to get used to, but I know that I got called up for a reason, and it’s in there.”