The jokes are only funny if the nightmare ends in laughs. If you fall down the stairs but get right up, you can smile about it. You have to walk away from the car crash to make the yeah-but-you-should-see-the-other-guy joke, so, sure, fine, OK. Let’s go through it.
Yordano Ventura’s thumb cramp was worse than the neighbor’s teenager after playing four hours of Call of Duty.
Yordano Ventura grabbed his thumb like a midnight foot cramp.
That’s the same hand Ventura used to sign that big contract, right?
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“We all kind of laughed about it after,” Royals manager Ned Yost says.
We can joke now, because, man, for a minute there it looked as if the New Royals relapsed into the Old Royals as Ventura — the 23-year-old with the 100-mph fastball and new long-term contract — finished the 81st pitch of a shutdown opening-day performance by throwing his glove to the ground and writhing in pain as though a bullet needed to be extracted from his right hand.
It is a perfect scene for the start of a bad horror flick, except since around the middle of July last year the Royals have apparently been cashing in the receipts for a generation of rotten luck, so … it’s just a thumb cramp, nothing serious, and the Royals beat the White Sox 10-1 in front of a sellout crowd in the season opener at Kauffman Stadium on Monday afternoon.
Ventura will make his next start. And, all together now, exhale. The whole range of emotions is now inventory on a crash scenario averted.
“I thought something popped, or something blew out,” says Eric Hosmer, the first baseman and one of the first to Ventura’s side.
“Oh my God,” Mike Moustakas remembers thinking.
“Then,” says Alcides Escobar, “it’s ‘Thank God.’”
Nobody needed it, of course, but for six innings Ventura gave the Royals one more glimpse of baseball’s version of investing on the ground floor of Apple. Ventura signed as a teenager for just $28,000 and is now such a prodigious talent — not just the fastball, but a strong curveball, improving change-up and an unnatural poise — that a new contract worth up to $47 million is a bargain.
He made it six innings, the lone run on a harmless, solo home run by Jose Abreu when the Royals already had the lead. Only five of 21 batters Ventura faced reached base. He pitched out of trouble in the second inning, the last out coming on a curveball he buried in the dirt, one of many subtle moments the Royals are taking much encouragement from.
When Ventura was making his way through the professional ranks, he often threw too many fastballs, making himself too predictable. Compounding the problem, he occasionally treated the stadium radar gun like a measurement of masculinity, like that game with the big hammer at the county fair.
But on Monday, Ventura showed some evolvement. He didn’t have his trademark velocity — his fastball sat around 95 mph, which is entirely normal for this time of year — and he showed the confidence to go to his off-speed stuff in important spots. He was also efficient, on track to finish seven innings, all but 15 of his 81 pitches going for strikes.
This is the version of Ventura that many inside the Royals’ organization have always envisioned. His three-pitch toolbox is enough to get through any lineup without overthrowing, and when he has the command to attack the strike zone and the confidence to be unpredictable in those moments where a game can shift, well, the Royals have their best homegrown pitcher since Zack Greinke.
Then, it’s never really been about talent with Ventura. Ask around the game, and the evaluations of his potential almost always include a frightening caveat — as long as he stays healthy — early and often.
He is small, a 6-foot and 195-pound frame that’s closer to a distance runner than big league ace. The link between size and durability is overblown in the mainstream — mechanics are much more important, for instance — but still important.
Last May, he walked off the mound in the third inning of a start holding his elbow in a scene that club executives see in their nightmares. Ventura missed just one start. He will apparently make his next scheduled start now, but a major injury is by far the greatest risk to his long-term success.
The Royals did a good job insulating themselves from injury risk. They were remarkably healthy last year — just seven starts from an injury replacement — but know they can’t count on that. So they signed Chris Young, with Christian Binford, Miguel Almonte, Kris Medlen (eventually) and others providing more depth.
But there is no equal for Ventura. Much like Salvador Perez among the position players, he is irreplaceable on a few levels, and one of the players the coaches and front office worry about constantly.
As long as he is healthy, the Royals have one of baseball’s most talented young starting pitchers on a long-term, cost-controlled contract. There is no more valuable commodity in the game. He could pitch in the All-Star Game, or finish in the top five of Cy Young voting and nobody would be shocked.
But even in a profession where an eventual major injury is more probability than possibility, Ventura carries more risk than most.
Watching him pitch is a bit like going on a roller coaster that’s overdue on its inspection. You’re probably safe, but either way, it’s going to be a heck of a ride.
After the game, Hosmer was describing what he saw when he rushed over to Ventura. The pitcher pointed to his thumb, and the cramp was severe enough that Hosmer could see it locked up. Ventura was pulling on it to dull the pain, and at this point in the story Hosmer gives a sort of high-pitched sigh, the universal sign for relief.
“And you know Dayton was doing that,” Hosmer says.