The radar gun at Kauffman Stadium befuddled Royals manager Ned Yost. In the third inning of a 9-2 loss to the Houston Astros, the scoreboard flashed velocity readings in the lower 90s, far too low for 22-year-old starter Yordano Ventura.
Inside the dugout, Yost turned to pitching coach Dave Eiland.
“What are those?” Yost said. “Are those change-ups? Two-seamers?”
The answer was far more harrowing. Ventura could not generate his trademark life on his fastball. His right elbow felt “uncomfortable, not natural, (with) a little bit of pain,” he said afterward, with enough discomfort for him to leave the game.
The team diagnosed discomfort on the lateral, or outer, side of his elbow. The inside part of the joint houses the ulnar collateral ligament, the one involved in Tommy John surgery. The team’s training staff assured Yost there was no damage to that precious piece of fibrous tissue.
“I’m not concerned it’s a ligament injury,” Yost said.
Ventura will still undergo an MRI this afternoon. The fear coursed through his teammates. Like the rest of the industry, they’ve witnessed a rash of arm injuries this season, an epidemic that has claimed reliever Luke Hochevar and three dozen others.
“It isn’t a relief until we hear exactly what’s going on,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
Like Yost, Hosmer noticed the light radar gun readings in the third inning. His confusion turned to horror as he saw Ventura depart. The sight caused him to swear, a sensible reaction given Ventura’s importance to this club.
When this season began, Baseball America rated Ventura the No. 26 prospect in the game. His teammates call him “Ace.” But as Monday showed, the path from nickname to reality is fraught with barriers.
The stadium’s radar gun clocked his final fastball at 94 mph. Astros second baseman Jose Altuve fouled it off to prolong the at-bat. Ventura appeared a tad sluggish in his delivery, but there was no visible sign of discomfort. When he returned to the rubber, he looked up and saw a powder blue convoy approaching the mound.
Ventura spoke with trainer Kyle Turner for a few moments. He used his jersey to wipe the sweat off his brow. Turner motioned to manager Ned Yost, and departed the mound with Ventura.
The subsequent ovation was muted, a stunned near-silence from 32,070 inside a packed ballpark.
“That’s the worst feeling in the world, coming off the mound to the unknown,” said Danny Duffy, who underwent the dreaded procedure in 2012. “You’ve just got to hope for the best.”
Ventura adopted that stance. He indicated he hoped he could make his next start. In all likelihood, even in the most optimistic scenario, the team will grant him a week or more for the inflammation to subside.
To observers, Ventura inspired both wonder and fear. The wonder related to his repertoire, his poise, his knack for on-mound adjustments. The fear related to his size: He stands no taller than 6-0. He is listed at 180 pounds. Team officials insist his lower body is a powerful force, capable of sustaining his tremendous velocity. But worries still persisted.
As the Royals planned for this season, they projected considerable contributions from Ventura, Duffy and perhaps even Kyle Zimmer, their first-round pick in 2012. Zimmer has yet to pitch in a minor-league game. Duffy just entered the rotation a few weeks ago. The status of Ventura is now in question.
For a Royals roster struggling to find offense, the loss of a dynamic pitcher stings. One American League talent evaluator referred to the injury as a potential “death blow” to the Royals.
“You never want to see something like happen to anybody,” starter James Shields said. “We need him out there.”
Ventura displayed such promise in April. He allowed five earned runs in 30 innings, good for a gaudy 1.50 ERA. He captured the first victory of his career against the Astros. He earned raves from teammates and opponents alike.
Here in May, his star has not yet diminished, but his production has regressed. Through five starts, his ERA is 5.81. He was vulnerable to home runs. On Monday, he looked uncomfortable from the outset.
His fastball hummed at its usual register in the upper 90s. But his location was inexact as he gave up two runs in the first inning. George Springer raked a two-run double in the second on his way to a four-hit, five-run game. In the third, Ventura said, he realized something had gone awry with his arm.
“Things changed in the third inning when he went out there,” said Bruce Chen, his translator. “There was definitely something different in his arm.”
Ventura remained upbeat afterward. A protective sleeve sheathed his right arm. A smile marked his face as he walked out of the clubhouse.
“See you tomorrow,” he told teammate Jason Vargas. Vargas said the same.
By then, a worrisome situation should have more clarity.