So Yordano Ventura started for the Royals on Tuesday night, and with that now comes this lingering question:
Will the dormant magic of a year ago resurface — and ultimately become a factor in the Royals’ postseason ambitions — or should you brace yourself for more baffling misadventures?
After so many bizarre and unpredictable episodes this season, the experience of watching Ventura has become something like, say, seeing a box of chocolates set atop a roulette wheel in a Hitchcock movie.
You never know what you’re going to get, where it’s going to stop or how it’s going to end.
Entering the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium, any true expectations of Ventura had to be put in the 2015 filter: downgraded from spellbinding, appointment TV during his promising rookie season to mere mystery theater.
Perhaps he’d start strong but unravel under the duress of base runners, like he has so frequently.
Maybe then he’d put on a sideshow, too, whether it was curiously suffering from cramps or gratuitously staring down a superstar opponent or trash-talking on Twitter between games.
Or just maybe the Royals opening day starter would summon his potential to dazzle, like he had done about four or five times in 17 previous starts this season.
Which unpredictably predictably was just what Ventura did.
Fresh off surrendering 11 runs in 12 innings over his last two starts, Ventura gave up just two hits in six scoreless innings to stake the Royals to a 6-1 victory.
“He was aggressively into it,” manager Ned Yost said of Ventura afterward. “He was into the game: You could tell by his body language, by the way he was attacking the zone.”
Most significantly, his night included wriggling out of a bases-loaded, one-out quagmire enabled by two walks and a Ben Zobrist error at second base in the second inning.
Instead of getting flustered or frustrated by the injustice of it all, Ventura struck out Jefry Marte and induced a soft groundout.
“He stayed confident, he stayed poised and continued to make pitches,” Yost said. “He just really kind of took off from that point.”
Through translator Jeremy Guthrie, Ventura said he felt calm because he knew he was around the strike zone.
He switched gears quickly to focusing not on what had happened but on the escape hatch ahead, seeking a double play or strikeout.
After that, Guthrie said, it “gave him energy and excitement going forward.”
Yes, he walked six, and the shutout stint was concocted with some of the customary benefits Royals pitchers enjoy:
Jarrod Dyson and Alcides Escobar combined to throw out a runner at the plate (actually shocking Yost in the process, because he thought there was no chance).
Salvador Perez picked off a runner at first, and Escobar made a brilliant backhand grab to snuff out a brewing rally in the sixth.
Yet Ventura earned and owned this night, which was a truly fine thing.
But it has to be seen as a hopeful link in a chain, not something transformative in itself.
Let recent history be your guide here.
Less than a month ago, Ventura had been optioned to Class AAA Omaha amid giving up a whopping 15 runs in 15 paltry innings over four starts.
Because of the quirk of Jason Vargas’ immediate season-ending injury, Ventura never left and responded by giving up one run in seven innings in a 5-1 win over Houston.
Afterward, Yost pronounced the “old Ventura” back and called it “a good sign for us (and) a bad sign for everybody else.”
In part, of course, such generous assessments are to prime the psyche of Ventura, whose issues this season have seemed entirely mental.
Because it’s more important to have the trust and faith of his players than it is to express any doubts about them publicly, that’s a wise stance for Yost.
Surely he had conviction about it, too, wanting to believe it himself.
But it didn’t mean it was any certainty, as Ventura’s two starts between then and Tuesday reinforced.
With the acquisition of ace Johnny Cueto, the steadfast work of Edinson Volquez and the largely adept performances of Danny Duffy over the last two months, the perception might be that Ventura is increasingly less crucial to the Royals postseason hopes.
But a three-man playoff rotation is a rarity and would be a gamble in itself.
And between Ventura’s overall potential and his dynamic work in the 2014 postseason, he clearly is the most desirable option to be the No. 4 starter.
If he can be counted on by then.
So the Royals must do all they can to cultivate consistency with Ventura, a simple concept that’s been complicated to execute.
With a super-sized lead in the American League Central, beyond not losing players to injuries or just burning anyone out, there’s nothing more important down the stretch than twisting and turning the psychological Rubik’s cube to get Ventura aligned right.
To some, it appeared the best way to do that was to make good on that Omaha trip.
If nothing else, it would have provided a little jolt to the system for Ventura.
But somewhere in the last few weeks, the Royals determined that option would be fruitless.
And when you really think about it, well, they’re right.
Especially at this late stage of the season.
“If you have a great night in Triple-A,” general manager Dayton Moore said Friday, “I don’t know what that means for Yordano.”
He added, “This is the Major Leagues, and this is where the best competition in the world exists. And if you’re going to be able to improve and get better, you need to be able to do it up here.”
On Tuesday, Ventura did just that.
And maybe, just maybe, this one will take instead of just being one step up for another two steps back.
“It was the old Ventura of last year,” Yost would say again late Tuesday, “when he would have all of the confidence that, ‘Hey, you can get a couple guys on but that’s as far as it’s going to go.’ ”
His ability to stay that way, or not, figures to be a major factor in how far the Royals are going to go.