Leave it to a player with no previous history in Omaha to steal the show on a night his franchise celebrated its 50-year affiliation with Kansas City by further extending its player development contract.
New Storm Chasers outfielder Elier Hernandez recorded hits in his first three at-bats and drove in a pair of runs as Omaha posted a 6-3 comeback victory over Round Rock in their series opener Friday night at Werner Park.
The Chasers welcomed their first manager, Jack McKeon, and others back to the city prior to the signing of the new player development contract by Royals Assistant General Manager J.J. Picollo and current Omaha GM Martie Cordaro.
The Kansas City-Omaha affiliation, the longest in Triple-A baseball, will continue through at least 2020.
“For the Kansas City Royals, this has always been home for us,” Picollo said. “And to have an affiliate less than three hours from your home ballpark in a community like this, and with the front office and ownership group that we have here, it couldn’t be any better. We’re very happy about the extension.”
The Chasers played Friday as the Royals, with 1980s throwback uniforms. They fell behind 2-0 in the first inning before rallying with six straight runs to snap a four-game skid against the Express.
Hernandez doubled in the go-ahead run in the third, then singled in another in the fifth. The 23-year-old Kansas City prospect was batting .287 with 50 RBIs before his promotion from Double-A.
“He did everything you could do right tonight,” Omaha manager Brian Poldberg said. “He got a guy over and got the runs in with two outs. (I’m) very excited. A new guy always gives you a breath of fresh air.”
Poldberg compared the Hernandez debut to the recent one of his old Northwest Arkansas teammate, Nicky Lopez. The former Creighton infielder tallied four hits in his first game at the Triple-A level last month.
The addition of Hernandez came during a shuffle of outfielders within the system. Kansas City parted ways with Abraham Almonte after it welcomed Rosell Herrera back from the paternity list. And Bubba Starling dislocated his index finger prior to returning to Omaha, opening the door for Hernandez.
Starling injured a side muscle only 11 games into his season and hadn’t played for the Chasers since early May. He was set to return to Omaha after four rookie league games when the new injury occurred.
“Really, really unfortunate,” Picollo said. “I feel terrible for Bubba. He worked extremely hard to get over the oblique strain. He had a great week swinging the bat. He hit three home runs in the Arizona rookie league, was running well and throwing well.”
Picollo said Starling tripped over something while getting out of bed and severely dislocated his left index finger. It had to be surgically put back into place, and it will remain in a splint for three weeks.
The Chasers played on without him Friday, getting 22⁄3 shutout innings from Richard Lovelady after Jonathan Dziedzic shook off a slow start to pitch into the seventh. Frank Schwindel and Cam Gallagher each had two hits and drove in a run for Omaha, which was opening a brief three-day homestand.
The pregame contract extension came as no surprise, but it is something neither the Royals nor Chasers take for granted. Cordaro joked that neither he nor Picollo wants to screw up the relationship after 50 years.
“This is a relationship that isn’t just about player development. It’s not just about wins and losses on the field or sending players to Kansas City,” he said. “It’s about getting these men ready in the community. And the Royals support that. And they support the efforts that we do. … This is an overall partnership.”