As elated as Naturals hitting coach Leon Roberts is to see his pupil, Nicky Lopez, continually notching multiple hits night after night, there's some admittedly selfish trepidation from seeing him flourish.
"The tough thing is if he keeps swinging the bat like this, he'll be in Triple-A here pretty quick and I won't have him," Roberts quipped.
The Royals' No. 6 prospect went 4-for-5 with a triple in Double-A Northwest Arkansas' 10-9 walkoff win against Tulsa on Saturday at Arvest Ballpark. He recorded his fourth multi-hit game in as many days and his eighth in the last nine outings, going 20-for-41 (.487) during that stretch.
Gameday box score
Unlike Roberts, Lopez would welcome a promotion to Triple-A Omaha with open arms because it would be a homecoming of sorts. The 23-year-old was a three-year starter at Creighton University in Omaha, playing third base before moving to shortstop as a sophomore. He earned second-team All-Big East honors in his final season, hitting .306 with two homers, five triples and 11 doubles.
"I would love nothing more for to play in Omaha," Lopez said. "I'm trying to stay focused here in Double-A, but it's in the back of my mind. ... It's kind of my second home."
The promotion would offer Lopez the chance to visit old professors and be close to his girlfriend, Sydney Lamberty, who was a senior on the Creighton women's basketball team this past season.
Lopez grew up in Naperville, Illinois, a suburb about 30 minutes west of Chicago, but grew up a Yankees fan -- despite being in a family full of Cubs' fans -- because he idolized Derek Jeter. But his time in Omaha exposed him to the Royals quite a bit, and Lopez was a sophomore for the Blue Jays when the Royals won the second World Series in franchise history in 2015.
After observing the organizational culture from afar, being drafted by the Royals was a thrill for Lopez.
"I was blessed to be drafted by a first-class organization and wouldn't trade anything for the world," he said.
A 2016 fifth-round selection, he earned a promotion to Double-A last year in his first full season in the Minors, posting a .259/.312/.293 slash line in 232 at-bats with the Naturals. He was hitting .295/.376/.407 in 70 games with Class A Advanced Wilmington before the promotion and finished with a .281 average and .821 OPS with Rookie-level Burlington in his debut season.
Lopez was a breakout star in the Arizona Fall League last year, tying for the league lead with 31 hits and finishing second with a .383 batting average. He was named to the AFL's Top Prospect team.
He carried the momentum from excelling against top prospects and turned it up a notch in his second glimpse in Double-A.
"It was the most fun I've had actually playing the game of baseball," Lopez said. "I was able to go out there and play with the best prospects and up-and-comers in the sport -- you see [Ronald Acuna Jr.] and Jordan Hicks already in the big leagues. Being on the same field as them and prepare each and every day, and put up some productive numbers as well, gave me the confidence I really need. Baseball is a game where if you get some confidence you can really do some damage. I got some confidence was able to carry it over into this year."
After getting a look at Lopez last season, Roberts has been impressed with his focus in 2018.
"It's refreshing to see him prepare every day and play every day," Roberts explained. "Sometimes you have long bus trips and losing streaks. Pitchers throw 45 pitches in an inning and you're standing around. It's easy to lose your focus and to let your guard down. But he doesn't take a pitch off."
Video: Lopez starts 9th-inning rally by legging out triple
With the Naturals down, 9-8, entering the final frame, Lopez kickstarted their rally by lacing a leadoff triple to right-center field. Elier Hernandez followed with a single to right to plate Lopez, moved to second on a wild pitch and took third on a groundout before scoring the winning run as Brandon Downes reached on an error by third baseman Connor Joe.
Lopez said Roberts told him to be patient with Tulsa's Dylan Baker because he has a propensity for living too far on the edges -- he issued eight walks in 10 2/3 innings entering Saturday, but it didn't take long for Lopez to stumble upon a pitch that he could drive, an inside fastball center-cut. The left-handed hitter was initially worried Dodgers No. 6 prospect DJ Peters would run down his well-struck knock in center field, but it was out of reach and he cruised in to third with a triple.
"[Peters] is unbelievable out there, so right when I hit it I knew I got it good, but I thought he was going to run it down" Lopez said. "I was praying that he dropped it, but he couldn't get to it and I was able to get to third."
Lopez also singled to left and right and legged out an infield hit.
With his batting average up to .320, which is seventh in the Texas League, Lopez is playing like a man hungry for a promotion to Triple-A. And while Roberts would hate to seem him go, he knows it's out of his control.
"The rest is up to him," Roberts said.
Hernandez went 4-for-5 with a two-run homer and four RBIs and Royals No. 28 prospect Samir Duenez chipped in two hits and three RBIs for the Naturals.
Peter O'Brien went 2-for-3 with a homer, four RBIs and two walks, while Dodgers No. 3 prospect Keibert Ruiz thumped a pair of doubles for the Drillers.