MLB’s first regular-season game in Omaha brings back mixed feelings for Whit Merrifield

Before hitting it big in the majors, Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield, center, won a CWS title with South Carolina at Rosenblatt Stadium and played parts of four seasons with the Triple-A Storm Chasers.

Thursday’s major league game between Kansas City and Detroit at TD Ameritrade Park will feature a number of players who will be in Omaha for the first time and another who knows the city all too well.

Whit Merrifield will forever be a part of College World Series lore because of his walk-off hit in the final championship game at Rosenblatt Stadium. But the South Carolina standout transformed himself into a potential big league star, spending parts of four summers playing Triple-A ball across town.

Understandably, Merrifield has conflicting feelings about his days in Omaha. His 2010 championship run with the Gamecocks provided cherished memories for a lifetime, but opening a pair of seasons with the Storm Chasers, after nearly making the Royals out of spring training, were times he’d rather forget.

Merrifield’s feelings for Omaha came up upon his return to Werner Park for an exhibition game with the Royals before this season. Now that he’s an established big leaguer, and a potential American League all-star, he’s at peace with a place that had been both heaven and hell.

“It gives Omaha a much better taste in my mouth,” he said. “I loved Omaha for a while. Then playing here in Triple-A ... minor league cities are kind of unique. You don’t really get a chance to enjoy the city, because you’re so concerned with getting out of the city.

“It’s nice to be in Omaha not dying to get out.”

Merrifield is one of a number of Royals that fans in Omaha will recognize from past Chaser seasons at Werner Park. He’s also among a group, which includes probable Detroit starter Matthew Boyd, on the active rosters for Thursday’s game who played in the CWS.

Former Nebraska star Alex Gordon is among those players, leading the Huskers to the 2005 CWS at Rosenblatt. He and Royals reliever Jake Diekman will be part of the first MLB game in their home state.

“Omaha is a great place to play baseball,” he said. “You see it during the (CWS). I think MLB recognized that and wanted to put some major leaguers on that field and show Omaha fans what it’s all about.”

Kansas City rookie second baseman Nicky Lopez was looking forward to Thursday’s game long before the season began.

The former Creighton star opened the season in Omaha and was hoping to be promoted before this game arrived. The Royals called Lopez up for the first time a month ago.

And the promotion generated some excitement for Bluejay fans. Creighton coach Ed Servais, of course, would rather be playing in his team’s home stadium this week but is happy that Lopez will be.

“I’m going to enjoy every minute of it,” Servais said. “I’m not going to worry about who’s bunting in the second inning, and who’s trying to hit and run, and who needs to make a pitching change in the fourth inning. I’m going to sit back there and be the biggest fan of the Kansas City Royals and Nicky Lopez.

“He’s looking forward to it. It’s something he talked about in the offseason. He wanted to get to the big leagues by the time June 13 rolled around. The city of Omaha is going to have a blast that entire day.”

The addition of Lopez to the lineup meant a move to the outfield for Merrifield. The versatile Royal embraced the move for the betterment of his team. Merrifield was comfortable with the change after spending plenty of time in the outfield with the Chasers while working to expand his game.

Merrifield didn’t have a quick trip to the majors after wrapping up his college career in Omaha in 2010. But when he arrived in Kansas City in 2016, he was ready to make an impact. In his second big league season, he led the AL in stolen bases. He repeated the feat last summer while also topping the AL in hits.

“It was a long, strenuous journey that had a lot of peaks and valleys,” Merrifield said. “But I knew what my goal was at the end of the day. And I was going to do everything I could to make it happen.

“I just needed an opportunity. I was patient enough and got one and took advantage of it. That’s really what playing in the big leagues is all about. If you’re not a high-level prospect, you might get one opportunity. And when you get it, you’d better take advantage.”

Kansas City and Detroit sit well behind the first-place Minnesota Twins in the Central Division. In the grand scheme of the MLB season, Thursday night’s game won’t mean much.

But that won’t be the case for those involved in the game or in the crowd. No matter the outcome, Thursday will be a historic night in Omaha and a wonderful way to kick off the 2019 CWS.

“It’s different, but MLB’s doing a great job,” Gordon said. “You saw Oakland and Seattle in Japan, and last year with other teams playing at different sites. It’s fun to change it up. I know Detroit’s with us, too.

“It’s going to be a fun one game. I’ve never played there. I’ve only seen it on TV. We’re excited about it.”

Staff writer Jon Nyatawa contributed to this report.