The first word out of Yordano Ventura’s mouth appeared to be an expletive. The second was inconsequential, because the chain reaction had already begun. Ventura would contend later that White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton yelled at him first, but the order of operations did not alter the outcome. The fuse was lit and kindling laid weeks ago would soon catch fire.
“That’s when all hell broke loose,” manager Ned Yost said.
In the seventh inning of a 3-2 victory at U.S. Cellular Field, the Royals brawled with the White Sox in an incident that cleared both benches, left dozens of bruises, resulted in five ejections and injected actual violence into an already contentious season. In the fiercest exchange, Lorenzo Cain traded blows with Chicago pitcher Jeff Samardzija as all 50 members of both clubs tussled on the diamond.
The game didn’t end for another five innings. Eric Hosmer ripped a double to plate backup outfielder Jarrod Dyson in the 13th. Dyson was only in the game because Cain had been tossed. The crowd had thinned to the hearty few willing to brave the cold. The fisticuffs had long since usurped the score, and Yost had already counseled Ventura on the consequences of his temper.
Thursday continued a pattern with Ventura. He jawed with Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout at Angel Stadium of Anaheim during his second start. He smoked Oakland third baseman Brett Lawrie with a 99-mph fastball and was ejected in his last outing. Major League Baseball officiials elected only to fine him for the latter incident. They may be less lenient about Thursday.
“He recognizes that some of his actions are putting him in a less than favorable light, as well as the team, which is very important to him,” said Jeremy Guthrie, who translated for Ventura. “So he wants to work on it, and be better. It’s something he needs to work on.”
In the aftermath, the Royals toasted another victory and their 12-4 record, the best in the American League. Yost wore a hat covered in dirt after he fell to the ground during the fight. His players conducted their elaborate post-game celebrations with booming rock music. They howled at the replays of the fracas. They applauded 56-year-old third-base coach Mike Jirschele for absorbing a blow from Samardzija.
“We’re going to back our teammates, regardless,” Cain said. “That’s what we do. We’re a family in here.”
That was inside the clubhouse. Outside the room, analysts on television networks and pontificators on social media once more rushed to excoriate the club for their role in another brouhaha. The Royals appeared to have escaped the storm that swirled around their club after last weekend’s row with Oakland. Now another, more serious incident has engulfed them. More suspensions could follow in the coming days.
At the end of the fight, Cain and Samardzija were tossed, along with Ventura, White Sox starter Chris Sale and Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez. For the third consecutive game, Ventura triggered an on-field incident. He expressed contrition after the game and admitted he allowed his temper to best him.
“The last three outings, his emotions have spilled over,” Guthrie said, again translating for Ventura. “They’ve gotten the better of him. He’s an emotional pitcher. But he needs to work on controlling them, moving forward. He certainly wants to avoid the results, in terms of the way the outings have ended.”
The two clubs had already traded words and a pair of hit-by-pitches when Eaton came to bat in the bottom of the seventh. He smacked a comebacker at Ventura. As Ventura fielded the ball, his motion shuttled him toward Eaton. This prompted Eaton to yell at Ventura. Ventura responded with a two-word phrase that is considered unprintable.
“Ventura is a heck of a competitor,” Eaton said later. “I respect the heck out of him and everyone behind him. I’m a competitor as well. Sometimes boys will be boys and I think that was a situation where we had some excitement.”
Eaton turned to confront Ventura. The umpires separated both. Mike Moustakas rushed to remove Ventura from the fray as the dugouts and bullpens emptied.
In the aftermath, the Royals cast the squabble as a continuation of their Opening Day encounter with the White Sox, when Samardzija drilled Cain with a fastball. Ventura sparked the blaze, but Royals players contended Samardzija stoked the flames earlier in the game.
The moment? Christian Colon lined into a double play to end the sixth inning. It was a 2-2 game, tied up after an RBI single by Alexei Ramirez in the fourth and Jose Abreu’s RBI double in the fifth matched Kendrys Morales’ two-run single in the first.
Colon saw Sale celebrate the double play. This reaction, he said later, was understandable. But then he heard Samardzija, safe inside his own dugout, yelling at Colon to get off the field.
“So I yelled back,” Colon said. “I’m like, ‘What’s your deal, bro? You’re not even in the game.’” He added, “That started everything right there. He’s just in the dugout, chirping. I thought we were done with all that.”
Colon mentioned this as a character trait of Samardzija. He indicated Samardzija harassed Ventura from the dugout as a member of the Athletics during last year’s Wild Card Game. Samardzija did not answer these charges. He did not make himself available to reporters after the game.
He did make himself available to Cain. When the benches emptied, the players engaged in something resembling a rugby scrum for several moments. Sale surged forward, and somehow ended up barking at Yost.
At some point, Cain and Samardzija found each other. Samardzija charged at Cain, who was being held back by hitting coach Dale Sveum. Samardzija missed Cain and bowled over Jirschele.
“I was just trying to make sure Cain didn’t get into it,” Jirschele said. “All of a sudden, I’m getting plowed over by somebody. Who ended up being Samardzija.”
As Samardzija went to the ground, Edinson Volquez swung a wild haymaker that caught only air. White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers rushed Volquez and shooed him away. Dozens of bodies converged once more. Cain emerged with his jersey over his head, like a hockey player.
“Tempers flared and it got a little heated out there,” Cain said. “Things happened that maybe shouldn’t have happened.”
Cain said he did not deserve a suspension. He considered his actions self-defense.
“I don’t see why I should get disciplined,” Cain said. “He came after me, right? We’ll see what happens.”
A reporter later asked Cain what he thought of Samardzija. “You really want to know?” Cain said. “I mean, for me, I’m not a big fan. I’m not a big fan of him. I don’t know what the deal is. We’re just going to try to clean it up and get ready to play some baseball tomorrow. We’ll see what happens.”
The scene stained yet another outing Kansas City’s defense of their American League championship. Few will talk on Friday about the Royals’ sterling bullpen effort, with six more scoreless innings on Thursday. Even fewer will mention Ventura’s eight strikeouts across seven innings. Hosmer’s game-winning hit will be a mere footnote.
If Ventura is discussed, the talk is unlikely to be charitable. In four starts, he has shown flashes of brilliance interrupted first by dehydration in his muscles and later by ill-timed emotional outbursts.
An onslaught of cramps felled Ventura in his first two outings. Yost speculated that wouldn’t be an issue on Thursday, not with the first-pitch temperature at 50 degrees and falling because of the wind chill. Before the game, the players bundled up in sweatshirts and beanies. A group huddled around the flaming red maw of a lone space heater inside a visitors’ dugout that offered neither frills nor warmth.
Ventura still brought some heat. He looked dynamic, Yost said, “until Eaton hit that groundball.” At that point, Yost saw a 23-year-old, big-league sophomore allow his composure to wilt.
The Royals witnessed similar scenarios in his last two outings. Yost tried to explain to Ventura afterward that opponents will attempt to incite him now. He must learn to control himself, and avoid repeats of Thursday.
“He’s a No. 1 starter,” Yost said. “I think he feels like he’s got big shoes to fill. But it’s his arm that does the talking. Or, needs to do the talking.”