Nate Eaton hits first Major League homer for Royals
TORONTO -- All Nate Eaton could hear by the time he rounded second base was his mother cheering from behind the dugout.
Eaton closed out an entirely unconventional Major League debut with his first career home run, a ninth-inning blast in a close game as the Royals crafted a gritty 3-1 win over the Blue Jays on Thursday night.
The 25-year-old had his mom, brother and sister-in-law in attendance at Rogers Centre to witness his accomplishment. It made the moment all the more emotional.
"The only voice I could hear was my mom's," said Eaton. "These are the people that have been there my entire life and they sacrificed so much for me to get to this point, because without them, I couldn't have been here. So to make them proud is really awesome."
Eaton's support system wasn't limited to his family, though.
One of eight Minor Leaguers added to the Royals’ roster for the series in Canada, Kansas City's No. 29 prospect had the presence of several Minor League teammates, including No. 2 prospect Nick Pratto, who also made his long-awaited debut on Thursday.
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Far from home and moments away from a crucial career milestone, the youngsters looked around the visitors’ clubhouse and felt surprisingly at ease.
"A lot of my best friends are in this clubhouse," said Pratto, who showed off his defensive talent at first base despite going 0-for-3 with a walk and three strikeouts in the series opener. "It's kind of surreal, but at the same time, it's just like old times."
Not many guys can say that about their introduction to the Major Leagues. A first call to the bigs usually comes with handshakes, hugs, goodbyes and well-wishes, while walking into a big league clubhouse for the first time can feel disorienting.
But the newly arrived Royals joined in as a unit.
Between active players and the taxi squad, Kansas City brought up 13 players from the Minors to Toronto, as 10 of the club's everyday big leaguers stayed in the United States due to their vaccination status. The young guys joined rookies Bobby Witt Jr. and Vinnie Pasquantino, not far removed from their debuts themselves.
"The message is that every single one of them deserves to be here," said Royals manager Mike Matheny. "They were right on the doorstep. We’ve talked about them, we’ve been watching them all season long. Don't let the unique nature of it take away all they’ve done to make this a reality."
While outside the clubhouse, many fans and pundits focused on the absent stars or the Royals’ "underdog status" against the Blue Jays, the young guys made themselves at home. Laughter and excitement reigned as Pasquantino cracked jokes about being a veteran presence.
"To have a familiar face that you have casual conversations with all the time, it just really relaxes you and helps you out -- in the clubhouse and in the dugout," said Eaton. "Without them joking around and keeping it relaxed, you’re going to think about it too much and tense up. So it's nice that we have people like that to make it not so serious."
Those familiar faces were filled with joy when Eaton hit the 10th pitch of his ninth-inning at-bat -- a 3-2 changeup from Anthony Banda -- and sent it flying out to left-center field for his first big league home run and hit.
"It was just pure celebration," said Matheny. "We still had another three outs to get, and we knew that, but they didn't hold anything back. And we love to see that. Just make sure you understand how special stuff like that is, and they embraced it."
Years of grinding in the Minor Leagues can be a nice recipe for friendship. That's why there was little surprise in the intensity with which the Royals’ youngsters were pulling for each other.
"Some of those guys I’ve gone through the Minors with, ups and downs," said Pratto, who also had his dad and a couple of coaches from his younger years at Rogers Centre. "It's something that you can't really explain to people. We’ve been through things together that nobody else knows about. So it's really cool to see everybody here, laughing in the clubhouse and getting ready to go compete."
Led by Witt's 13th career homer and Eaton's first, the Royals got the best of the postseason-contending Blue Jays and one of the best pitchers in the American League in Kevin Gausman.
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Left-hander Angel Zerpa came up from Double-A Northwest Arkansas to pitch five innings of one-run ball, allowing a home run to Matt Chapman, two walks and not much else in his second career big league win.
"One of the best wins of the year, all things considered," said Matheny. "We feed off these guys, and they’re just… I don't know if I’ve seen a [happier] group. It felt like playoffs. You can just see the true care and concern they have, the excitement they have, for the young players that have stepped in here and helped us win a Major League game. That's special."
It wasn't perfect -- there were some avoidable mistakes on the basepaths and aggressive swings at the plate. But Thursday in Toronto was a peek into what's to come, and this series will go down as a major stepping stone in these prospects’ development.