Royals top prospect Nicky Lopez gets big league shot

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Nicky Lopez had just been benched for the second time in three days at Triple-A Omaha when he was called into manager Brian Poldberg's office and ordered to hand over his cell phone.

"That's odd," Lopez thought Monday night.

But everything made sense when his mother picked up on the other end, and Poldberg told both of them at the same time that the 24-year-old infielder was headed to the Kansas City Royals.

"That's when she started crying," Lopez said, "and I got a little emotional."

Lopez made the quick trip to Kansas City and immediately found his name in the starting lineup, the club's top prospect playing second base and batting second Tuesday night in the opener of a three-game series against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium.

"I don't think I've stopped smiling, to be honest," he said. "My phone's been blowing up, which has been cool, seeing everyone supporting me. People I haven't talked to in a while. It's just been awesome. It's been a great 24 hours. I'm just ready to get after it."

The Royals had been thinking about bringing Lopez up in mid-June or even early July, but he had continued to dominate Triple-A pitching. The fifth-round pick of the 2016 draft was hitting .353 with a .457 on-base percentage, and he had struck out just five times in 116 at-bats.

Throw in some crafty defense, strong baserunning and maturity beyond his years, and manager Ned Yost said there was little reason left for the rebuilding club to keep Lopez in the minors.

"I expect him to show up every day and play his heart out," Yost said. "He pays attention. That's what I like. Spring training, we'd go play the Angels and guys would sit on the bench, and Nicky would never stop paying attention to the game."

Lopez wasn't surprised that he didn't make the big league club out of spring training, but he did harbor a secret desire to make it by June 13. That's when the Royals are scheduled to face the Detroit Tigers in Omaha, where he had established a massive following with the Storm Chasers.

"I've been preparing for this moment, all through the minor leagues, up till now," he said. "I always hear it's one thing to make it, it's another to stay. So that's what I plan to do."

The Royals haven't had a player make his big league debut with so much fanfare since Eric Hosmer in 2011. The first baseman was soon joined by third baseman Mike Moustakas, the two buddies forming the cornerstone of teams that won back-to-back AL pennants and the 2015 World Series.

The club has similar hopes for Lopez down the road.

The Royals sent right-hander Jake Newberry to clear roster space for him, and Yost moved second baseman Whit Merrifield to right field to get him in the lineup. Merrifield has bounced around for most of his career, and his ability to play just about anywhere came in handy.

"I thought I worked and turned myself into one of the best second basemen in the world, really. And now it's best for the team for me to play outfield," said Merrifield, who led the majors in hits and stolen bases last season. "I'm excited for that challenge. I'm ready for that challenge.

"At the end of the day," Merrifield said, "I'm sick of losing. I really am. We think Nicky is going to make us better and whatever is going to make us better is what I'm ready for."


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