Leave it to Kansas City Royals All-Star second baseman Whit Merrifield to lie in wait for the optimal instance of panic and confusion, champing at the bit for his chance to take advantage of the fleeting moment.
Sunday, Merrifield saw his opportunity on a shallow pop-up in the bottom of the third inning in the Royals’ series-clinching 5-3 win over the Minnesota Twins at Target Field in Minneapolis. A chance to use his knowledge of the rules, attention to detail and ability to think on his feet to steal an extra out for his team.
The only problem was the umpires walked it back after the fact.
“It’s a play I love,” Merrifield said with a mischievous smile. “I’ve been waiting all year for it. I finally got the perfect one and the fricking umpires screwed it up. Maybe I’ll get another one.”
With one out and Byron Buxton on first and Andrelton Simmons on second, Rob Refsnyder hit a soft fly just behind second base. Merrifield backpedaled to assure the ball fell in front of him.
Then Merrifield snagged it up off the bounce, rifled to third baseman Adalberto Mondesi, who stepped on third and threw to shortstop Nicky Lopez standing on second base.
“In a major-league game when the ball hits the ground, people freak out and don’t know what to do, especially when the crowd starts going ‘Awww,’” Merrifield said. “So if a guy is not locked in and understanding the situation, it’s a great time to catch somebody off-guard.
“Even if Simmons were to flinch off the bag, I could have flipped it right to Nicky and tagged him at second. I’m always looking to find ways to get cheap outs for our pitchers and move the inning along.”
With less than two outs, the runners froze upon seeing the ball was hit in the air in an effort not to get doubled off on a fly ball.
Merrifield took advantage of that instinctual reaction and let the ball drop, which left force plays at first, second and third base.
The Royals turned the inning-ending double play and trotted off the field.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli emerged from the home dugout to protest to the umpires, suggesting the infield fly rule — designed to prevent just such a scenario — should have been called to protect the baserunners from the predicament Merrifield created.
Had the infield fly been called, they still had chances to record the third out because of the confusion Merrifield’s play caused the runners. But that call wasn’t made.
“It’s a play that I’m constantly reminding Nicky and Santana, whoever is playing first and third about that situation,” Merrifield said. “I actually did it in ‘19 in Detroit and it worked. Same type of play where it actually hit my glove in Detroit and I dropped it. Since it’s an infield fly, it’s on the runner to make a judgment.
“The whole point of the play is the hitter is going to be out. But when I have a ball that I can drop in front of me and pick it right up, I’m trying to make the baserunners freak out and that’s exactly what happened with Simmons. As soon as he saw it drop, he took off for third.”
The umpires, led by crew chief Greg Gibson, ruled that the infield fly should have been called. They called the batter out, but put the runners back on first and second where they’d previously been and continued the inning with two outs.
Royals manager Mike Matheny then came out of the visiting dugout to object to that ruling.
“I just asked them to go check because the crew chief wanted to get everybody together and try and do the right thing. I thought the right thing was allowing the sign that didn’t happen to follow through so we could get a double play,” Matheny said through a grin. “But it was confirmed that the crew chief and the umpires have the ability to go back and correct it if infield fly wasn’t properly called.”
The Royals returned to the field and pitcher Kris Bubic got the next batter to, somewhat-fittingly, hit a fly ball caught by Merrifield in shallow center field.
On his way off the field, Merrifield had a chat with Gibson, who was umpiring third base.
Merrifield said the reasoning, as explained to him, was that by not calling infield fly when they should have the umpires put the runners in a bad situation. That’s why they brought the runners back to their previous positions.
Merrifield said the umpires apologized for the confusion caused by not making that call initially. He credited them for admitting that.