Rays’ quest: Stop Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr.

Dynamic Bobby Witt Jr. will lead the Kansas City Royals against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays in the middle game of a three-game series Wednesday night after the Rays won Tuesday’s opener 5-1.

It’s hard to take your eyes off of Witt, whose 44 extra-base hits rank fourth in baseball.

“The fans love him,” Royals manager Matt Quatraro said. “He is a ‘stop what you’re doing and watch’ kind of player. That’s the kind of person he is, and that’s the talent he has.”

“Bobby Witt,” Rays manager Kevin Cash answered when asked what impresses him most about Kansas City’s offense. “You always know where he’s hitting.”

Leading the American League with 108 hits, Witt — who is batting .311 — electrifies fans and teammates by taking the extra base. He ranks second in the majors with nine triples, and his 22 doubles are top-10.

“Out of the box, I’m thinking three,” Witt said. “You’ve got to be thinking extra base just because (it’s a) big stadium here and that’s our mentality. That’s what we do here. We’re aggressive, we’re going to try to take the extra base, and that’s how we’re going to win games.”

He has 31 extra-base hits and 44 runs in 47 home games to go with seven triples, which often serve as a catalyst for an opportunistic Royals offense in front of a responsive Kauffman Stadium crowd.

“It gets a little bit louder,” Witt said. “Just kind of sparks something.”

Kansas City’s Michael Wacha (4-6, 3.91 ERA) and Ryan Pepiot (4-4, 4.40) are scheduled to face off Wednesday in a matchup of right-handers.

Wacha will make his eighth career start vs. Tampa Bay, against whom he is 2-4 with a 5.54 ERA. He took the loss May 26, allowing two runs on three hits in six innings of a 4-1 game.

Over his past four starts, Wacha is 0-2 despite allowing fewer than three runs each outing. In a no-decision against Cleveland last Thursday, Wacha threw 5 1/3 innings, surrendering a run on seven hits and two walks with six strikeouts in a 2-1 win.

Pepiot will face the Royals for the first time and, like Wacha, is 0-2 over his past four starts, last winning June 4 at Miami.

In a June 21 start at Pittsburgh, Pepiot walked four and gave up three hits and two runs before exiting in the fourth inning of a 10-3 win.

“I put the bullpen in a tough spot,” he said. “They were already in a tough spot, and I made it worse. It’s disappointing because I never want to do that. I didn’t really do my job.”

Pepiot rebounded last Wednesday to strike out eight, tossing a one-hitter for 5 1/3 innings against Seattle. The Rays lost 5-2 in the no-decision for Pepiot.

“He should feel really good about the way he threw the ball,” Cash said. “I was really encouraged towards the end of the outing. The velocity was consistent with what it’s been at the beginning at some of his outings.”

Maintaining composure is crucial to Pepiot’s success.

“It was nice to see him reset himself after the Mariners series,” Cash said. “He’s an emotional guy. That’s something that he’s going to continue to work on and make sure his emotions aren’t going into the next pitch. I think more times than not he’s done a really good job of that this year.”

Tampa Bay has won nine of its past 12 games and will go for a fifth straight series win Wednesday.

–Field Level Media