KANSAS CITY — Bobby Witt Jr. seems to be made for the moment, and on Thursday afternoon, the moment found him.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning of Witt Jr.’s Major League debut, the No. 1 prospect in baseball stepped up to the plate. Michael A. Taylor stood on second base. The score was tied at 1-1.
The crowd at Kauffman Stadium stood on their feet as a “Bob-by” chant broke out among the announced 28,459 in attendance.
After taking ball one from Cleveland right-hander Triston McKenzie, the chants only got louder for Witt Jr. He dug in, circled his bat around and settled it on his right shoulder as he eyed McKenzie.
Witt Jr. was ready for an elevated inside slider. By the time the ball dropped into the left-field corner, he was cruising into second base and looking at his first Major League hit and his first Major League RBI — which proved to be the game-winner, helping the Royals to a 3-1 Opening Day win over the Guardians.
“They couldn’t have scripted that better, right?” manager Mike Matheny asked with a grin.
Witt Jr. is the only player in the modern era to have his first career hit be a go-ahead extra-base hit in the eighth inning or later on Opening Day. That kind of impact, though, is what the Royals expected when they promoted Witt Jr. to the big leagues.
The 21-year-old infielder is the rare five-tool player, viewed as a generational talent both at the plate and in the field. Before Thursday’s game, Whit Merrifield was asked if he had any advice for Witt Jr. ahead of his first day in the big leagues. Merrifield shook his head.
“Everything I tell him, he’s like, ‘Oh yeah,’” Merrifield said. “He’s mature beyond his years. I think he’ll be just fine.”
And he was. Witt Jr. said he thought he would be more nervous for the day he’s dreamed about his whole life. But when he was introduced to the crowd during the pregame ceremonies? Nothing. When he ran out onto the field for the first time, taking his place by third base? Nothing. When he stepped into the box for his first at-bat in the bottom of the first inning, with the crowd already giving him a standing ovation? Nothing.
“I was like, ‘When’s this going to happen?’” Witt Jr. said. “It just felt right.”
His day also included reaching a top speed of 30.8 feet per second (30 is considered elite) while trying to beat out a grounder to second base in the bottom of the third inning, which also happened to be the hardest-hit ball of the game at an exit velocity of 110.4 mph. Witt Jr. then made two standout plays at third base, including one to end the top of the third inning. With the infield shifted, Andrés Giménez hit a changeup on the ground to Witt Jr., who ranged to his right, backhanded the ball and made a clean throw to first that registered at 88.6 mph.
“I could see it coming a little bit with the way the game was going,” Greinke said. “His spot was coming up with a guy in scoring position. It felt like it was going to be a special day.”
With the score tied 1-1, Taylor led off the inning with a walk and Nicky Lopez bunted him over to second base. With offense hard to come by on the windy and cold day, this was one of the few chances to score.
The pressure fell to Witt Jr., who, at 21 years, 297 days old, became the youngest player in Royals history to make his Majors debut on Opening Day.
“I think I got more excited,” Witt Jr. said. “I don’t know. I just felt comfortable up there. It’s [something] I’ve [gone] through in my mind, dreamed about, and whenever you put it through your head, even though you haven’t experienced it … it’s a lot easier in the moment. I felt like that was one of those moments I’ve gone through in my head.”
Nothing changed about Witt Jr.’s approach, even as the wind whipped through his uniform and the crowd made the moment bigger.
“You watch through Spring Training, and you’re always trying to weigh how much you can read in Spring Training, but that’s basically all we’ve seen from him,” Matheny said. “ … He’s got very good strike-zone awareness. He works at strike-zone awareness. He works at trying to get balls in the prime part of the plate to put a good swing, and he doesn’t flinch at a lot of balls that are strike to ball.
“Seeing some natural things that he does that sets him up, and then once he does get a ball that he can do something with, he has all the tools to do a lot of damage.”
Damage done, Witt Jr. got to second base and immediately turned to the Royals’ dugout, clapped his hands and nodded his head.
“I was going nuts,” said Lopez, who also made an incredible highlight-reel diving play in the fourth inning. “I jumped over the railing. … You can already see it, even at 21 years old, he’s ready for this moment. The Royals know he’s ready for this moment. We know he’s ready for this moment.”