Contrary to results and appearances, Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura remains a 23-year-old rookie thrust into the most meaningful week of baseball the team or city has known in a generation-plus.
He’s supposed to be daunted or off balance or otherwise just not at ease with a momentous role in this pressure-cooker.
But he somehow remains oblivious to that aspect of all this, and that never was more evident than on Tuesday at Progressive Field.
In the vital moment, the unfazed Ventura just did what he’s been doing for months now.
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And then he basked in a rare Royals offensive outburst as they beat Cleveland 7-1 to whittle to three the magic number for their first playoff berth since 1985.
Anticipated performance is why manager Ned Yost more or less shrugged when initially asked about Ventura’s seven innings of shutout baseball that extended the Royals scoreless-innings-pitched streak to 21.
“Thought he was fine,” he said, flatly, grousing some about Ventura getting himself into trouble before adding, “But he’s got enough stuff and composure and competition to overcome it.”
The assessment was less Yost putting a damper on things than the fact that Ventura has crossed a threshold to where this is expected.
And with some nudging for elaboration later, Yost allowed as how “he’s a special guy. He’s a young guy who has all the makings of being a high-level upper-tier pitcher in the American League.”
This night was memorable for many things, not the least of which is conjuring the scenario that makes the postseason possibility seem more imminent than iffy.
So much so that that magic number stuff was of little interest to manager Yost, who is insistent that the wild card remains Plan B and that the Royals are in it to win the American League Central. They remain one game behind Detroit.
On the very night that Yost tied Dick Howser for the most games (770) as Royals manager, the game also produced the Royals 86th win for a second straight season … the first time the franchise has won at least that many games in back-to-back years since 1977 (102) and 1978 (92).
And perhaps the most encouraging element of the game was the timely eruption of a nucleus of players, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez, who have underperformed their career numbers much of the season.
All of that might eclipse what Ventura did, but the flip side is that chances are little of the rest would have come to pass or have meaning right now if Ventura hadn’t come into himself so rapidly.
The Royals apparently have starting pitching aplenty on its way over the next few years, but they didn’t have many prime options this season to round out the staff with the exclamation point they got in him.
Considering his immaturity a year ago and the elbow issue in May that sent a shudder through the team and Royals fans but didn’t linger long, and it’s easy to picture the difference his absence would have made.
But as he’s steadily become more of a pitcher than a thrower, Ventura has harnessed his gifts.
In 71 1/3 innings over 11 outings since the All-Star Break, he’s given up 18 runs. He won on Tuesday for the fifth time in six starts, improving his record to 14-10, and he’s now been involved in six scoreless starts this season.
Staying unscathed this time was dubious in his last inning of work, when the Indians loaded the bases with two outs.
Yost was considering yanking Ventura, but catcher Perez successfully negotiated even as doubters sprouted elsewhere.
“I told Skip, ‘Give him one more, one more,’” Perez said. “(Ventura) likes to fight. He likes to compete. He was still throwing 99, 98, 97 (mph).”
Ventura struck out Juan Ramirez, and that was that. After throwing his career-high 117th pitch, he thumped his chest and yelled as he walked toward the dugout.
Technically, he might still be a rookie. But Perez laughed at the idea and said, “I don’t think so.”
Afterward, Ventura didn’t have too much to say through translator Jeremy Guthrie, but Guthrie himself perhaps offered the right perspective on his night.
“It’s expected because we’ve seen the way he’s pitched all season,” he said. “From the outside, if you don’t know him and haven’t seen him, maybe you wouldn’t quite expect that.
“But when someone has as good stuff as he has and is able to throw strikes and command pitches, you should be confident no matter the situation. And I think that’s the case for him.”
And everyone around him, for that matter.