Hernández, ‘relentless’ offense seal sweep

CHICAGO — With a 9-1 victory over the Cubs on Sunday afternoon, the Royals completed a three-game sweep at Wrigley Field, capping off a week in which they went 6-1 against the Astros and Cubs.

“I just like the style of baseball the guys are playing right now,” manager Mike Matheny said before the game. “It’s confident and a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. Just there’s something to prove, it looks like, whether it’s on an individual basis or collectively.”

The lineup peppered Cubs starter Alec Mills with 11 hits before he exited the game in the fifth inning. In total, the Royals had 16 hits Sunday, a performance Matheny called “a relentless offensive attack.” Their 16 hits marks the highest total in a game since Aug. 6, 2020, coincidentally also against the Cubs. And for the first time since June 18, 2016, against the Tigers, the Royals had at least 16 hits without hitting a home run.

Excluding the pitcher’s spot in the lineup, seven of eight Royals batters had at least one hit, and Andrew Benintendi and Carlos Santana both had three. Hunter Dozier had two hits and drove in two runs on his 30th birthday.

A key factor in the series finale was Kansas City’s baserunning. After swiping four bags Saturday, the Royals had two more stolen bases Sunday. The Royals’ recent uptick in stolen bases hasn’t been a deliberate effort, however.

“There’s no difference in approach or aggressiveness,” Matheny said of his team’s recent success on the basepaths. “I think the opportunities presented themselves.”

Nicky Lopez stole second base in the third inning — his eighth steal this week — setting up him to score along with Whit Merrifield on an Andrew Benintendi double, and in the fourth inning, Emmanuel Rivera stole second, which allowed him to score on Lopez’s single. In all, the Royals stole seven bases against the Cubs this weekend.

Royals baserunners capitalized in other ways, too; Michael A. Taylor went from first to third on Rivera’s single in the fourth and scored on Merrifield’s sacrifice fly to left field.

Those kinds of plays on the bases, Matheny said, are a product of his players getting better at following the guidance of base coaches Rusty Kuntz and Vance Wilson.

“I thought this was as good of a series as I’ve seen in a long time as far as baserunning goes,” Matheny said. “Guys just really putting on the pressure. I know it’s something they’re taking a lot of pride in, they’re looking at how they can help change the game by putting that offensive pressure on the bases.”

On the mound, Carlos Hernández continued his stretch of successful starts, holding the Cubs to one run. Hernández struck out eight and scattered four hits across seven innings. His eight strikeouts were the most of his young career.

Hernández threw seven full innings for the first time, but he has pitched at least into the seventh inning in three consecutive starts. His ability to go deeper into games is a product of getting better at attacking hitters early, he said. From Matheny’s perspective, the recent performances by Hernández have erased any question about whether he belongs in the Royals’ rotation going forward.

“This guy has taken all doubt away, in my mind,” Matheny said. “How he’s repeating, and we’re not just talking about fastball command. We’re talking about four pitch command, and he has as good of a four pitch mix of any of the young players I’ve seen.”

As for the collective chip on the players’ shoulders lately, Ryan O’Hearn said he and his teammates have felt like they have underperformed this season, and that feeling has contributed to them feeling like there’s something to prove. O’Hearn also believes the Royals’ recent play is a good sign for the near future.

“It’s definitely foreshadowing what’s to come,” O’Hearn said before the game. “It’s exciting to be a part of, and the sky’s the limit for this team in the future, the near future. We’re not that far away.”

O’Hearn said his team has been prone to streakiness this season, something that has contributed to a losing record and being in fourth place in the A.L. Central.

“It’s just consistency, that’s all it is,” O’Hearn said. “I feel like the teams that are in first place, the teams that make it to the playoffs are the teams that are consistent.”

Benintendi said that the Royals players met as a group coming back from the All-Star break and talked about working on holding each other accountable and stepping up the more granular aspects of their collective game.

“Just holding each other accountable, doing the little things. Whether it be moving a runner, getting a bunt down, things like that,” Benintendi said.

Since going 36-53 prior to the break, the Royals have gone 19-15 in the second half. If that level of play since the break, and more recently, this week’s success is to be replicated going forward, consistency is the key to getting over the hump and being a competitive team. As a group, they have to get better at finding a way to flip the script when things are going poorly and get back on the right side of things, O’Hearn said.

“I think just confidence-wise, just guys believing in each other, believing in ourselves,” he said. “You become that cohesive unit, picking each other up, and I think we have that and we’re starting to figure that out. I wish we would have done it earlier. I think this team’s too talented to be where we are at in the standings.”