Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.
It is possible no one has ever been more successful at hitting a baseball, the toughest thing to do in sports, than George Brett in the summer of 1980. From May 22 of that year through the end of the season, he hit .427. Not his on-base percentage. His batting average. Brett was going so well that not even missing a month of action with an injury slowed him down. On July 17, he had a rare hitless day, but then proceeded to get at least one hit, and usually more, in the next 30 games. He hit .467/.504/.746 in that time, but my favorite stat might be that he struck out three times in those 139 plate appearances.
That 30-game hitting streak stood as the Royals’ record for nearly four decades. Whit Merrifield, the man bestowed with the nickname “Two-Hit Whit,” was probably as good a candidate as any to break the record. While no one would claim that Merrifield is in the same class as Brett, Whit did lead the majors in hits in 2018 and 2019. In an age when hitting for average is passe, Merrifield’s .304 mark in 2018 and .302 mark in 2019 were impressive. Consider that the American League’s batting average in 1980 was .269 and in 2018 it was a full 20 points lower, at .249.
Merrifield started his streak in the 2018 season. He went hitless on September 9 in Minnesota, then picked up one hit on the 10th at home against the White Sox. He ended the season with hits in the last 20 games, going 27-85.
In a way, the fact Merrifield’s streak spanned two seasons makes it more impressive. It seems so easy for players to get off to a slow start in a new season, with the cold weather and more off days, whether scheduled or weather-induced.
And Merrifield did start a bit slowly in 2019. He had five straight games with one hit…but he also hit in five straight games. So, despite a batting average of .238, the streak lived on. Merrifield then got hot, picking up 10 hits over the next five games. He tied Brett’s record in style, leading off the bottom of the first with a triple on April 9.
Merrifield was obviously saving the drama for the record-breaker. On April 10, facing the Mariners’ Yusei Kikuchi, Merrifield grounded out in the first, hit a fly ball to center in the second, and did so again in the fifth. As the bottom of the seventh began, the Royals trailed, 5-3. Merrifield was due up fifth in the inning, meaning he was probably only going to get one more chance. Chris Owings led off with a double, but was still at second with two outs. Terrance Gore hit a ball that bounced off center fielder Mallex Smith’s glove in right-center for a triple. Merrifield stepped to the plate, took strike one, and noticed that third baseman Ryon Healy was playing back. On the second pitch, Merrifield put down a good bunt. Healy fielded it but had no play. Gore scored the tying run and the crowd, although a sparse one of 12,775, gave Merrifield a standing ovation.
This being the Royals, of course they went on to lose. But Merrifield had supplanted a Hall of Famer in the record books. Brett was gracious, of course, saying, “He deserves it. He’s a good kid. He’s worked hard to get here. I like watching him play.” Brett also had the team deliver Merrifield a handwritten note of encouragement, which Merrifield promised to have laminated and displayed in his home.
“To do something nobody in the history of this franchise has done,” Merrifield said after the game, “[and surpass] one of the greatest players of all time who played for this franchise for a long time, it’s kind of surreal. I don’t even really know how to describe the emotions and the feelings I have going on right now.”