All the volatility and drama and control issues that had framed Yordano Ventura’s first seven starts this season had been tamped down, if not tamed, his last time out Tuesday against Cincinnati.
So much so that his seven-inning, four-hit shutout stint in a 3-0 victory that night resembled the superb form of his rookie season.
But whether that was a blip or a true start back for Ventura was an open question, so his subsequent performance on Sunday against St. Louis figured to offer worthy testimony either way:
Does he have some traction toward returning on a trajectory to stardom, or at least a season representative of being the Royals’ opening-day starter, or is he still stuck in a puzzling sophomore slump?
On the surface, anyway, you might surmise the latter from the 6-1 loss at Kauffman Stadium.
After all, Ventura surrendered four runs in seven innings and opened the game in an apparent funk as the first four Cardinals reached base.
But there also is an entirely different way to frame his start.
Perhaps it’s even a mitigating viewpoint — depending on how you’re naturally inclined to see to it or how open-minded you might be feeling.
Now, it might come as no surprise that the main purveyor of that perspective is Royals manager Ned Yost, who is inclined toward infinite optimism when he speaks of his players.
“For me,” Yost said, “he made one bad pitch.”
Preposterous as that might seem, Yost may be about right.
That pitch was a change-up inside dangled in the sixth inning to the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, who swatted it just fair down the line for a two-run homer.
The shot made it 4-1 and did in the Royals on a day when St. Louis pitcher Michael Wacha had all the stuff flowing that had made him 6-0 with a 2.13 ERA entering the game.
Entering that inning, though, Ventura had retired 14 straight after a wobbly first inning that in itself was one to set squarely in the eye of the beholder.
Literally, as it happens, in the case of home-plate umpire Mark Carlson, whom the Royals thought squeezed the strike zone early in at-bats that would prove pivotal.
Just to be clear, this observation from them wasn’t whining about a loss but merely matter-of-fact statements being offered in the context of Ventura’s performance.
Two walks opening the game would turn into two Cardinal runs, on a check-swing single and a more emphatic double, and afterward catcher Salvador Perez said “100 percent” that several of the pitches on the walks were strikes.
In fact, the BrooksBaseball.net PITCHf/xtool indicates three pitches on the four-pitch opening walk to Kolten Wong were on or in the strike zone.
“I know it’s hard to be an umpire, but sometimes they need to wait a bit, you know, and try to see the ball better,” said Perez, who asked Carlson if he wanted Perez to catch the ball more in front or let it go deeper to help him frame it better.
Yost, too, referred to several pitches that “could have gone either way.”
This is almost always true, obviously, but it’s a reminder of the scant difference between excellence and mediocrity.
And at that point of the game, it also was true that Ventura’s day could go either way.
He has struggled with composure in his new role this season despite exhibiting it constantly as a rookie on the back end of the rotation last season — including seven shutout innings in the win-or-it’s-over game six of the World Series.
For everything else Ventura accomplished in 2014, that was the night that most suggested he was ready to move into the role of the departed James Shields as the team’s No. 1 starter.
“I mean, you’ve got a 23-year-old kid pitching the biggest game that this stadium has seen in 29 years with our backs against the wall,” Yost said that night in October. “And he goes out there in complete command of his emotions.”
Logically seeming to stem from the changed role, it’s been curiously different this season.
Blame Ventura or blame others for triggering it in him, but either way he hadn’t had that kind of command of himself in the cauldron of competition.
So this was a major moment in the first inning.
A visit to the mound from pitching coach Dave Eiland seemed to help settle Ventura. But after Jhonny Peralta’s check-swing single and Matt Adams’ double over Lorenzo Cain in center field he still hadn’t recorded an out.
Just how closely Ventura was teetering on the verge of a knockout blow can’t be known, but that’s when he got a break that may have sustained him when Peralta drifted off third.
In one stupefying motion, Perez grabbed and rifled a bouncing ball to snare him in a rundown.
On his 25th pitch of the game, finally, Ventura induced his own first out, a ground-out by Yadier Molina, and he escaped the inning relatively unscathed with a pop-out by Randal Grichuk.
Then he was seamless and seemed the same as 2014, again, until the sixth and got through seven … albeit needing 114 pitches to do so.
He “threw the ball awesome,” Yost said.
Even if maybe that’s a bit strong, it’s ultimately hard to say this wasn’t all another step forward for Ventura and that it doesn’t suggest better days ahead.
If you want to see it that way, anyway.