A pair of sandals rested on the lower shelf of Yordano Ventura’s locker. An outfit of clothes dangled from a hanger. Otherwise there was no sign of the man inside the Royals clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday, the day he reached the nadir of his second season. A season marred by fights, injuries and inconsistency had led to an unceremonious demotion.
Earlier in the day, manager Ned Yost informed Ventura he was being sent to the minor leagues. The team optioned Ventura to Class AAA Omaha to make room on the roster for Jason Vargas, who returned from the disabled list to face Pittsburgh on Tuesday but left the game in the second inning with pain in his left elbow. He will have an MRI exam on Wednesday.
The decision appeared stunning on the surface — the Royals had named Ventura their Opening Day starter and lavished a $23 million contract upon him — but Kansas City had been contemplating Tuesday’s move for weeks.
“We’re at a point where we’ve got to put our best guys out there,” Yost said. “We’ve got to win games. We want to try to win this division. So performance matters.”
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With Ventura gone, the team retained pitcher Joe Blanton and maintained their organizational depth. Yost stressed the necessity of a pitcher like Blanton for Tuesday’s game, when the club required a long reliever. But he admitted the central issue was the performance of Ventura, who has suffered from a stunning fall from grace. Yost stressed Ventura would contribute again in the majors this season, but declined to reveal a timetable for his return.
On Monday, Ventura, 4-7, 5.19 ERA, surrendered a season-high six runs in a four-inning outing against Pittsburgh. The Royals saw the recurring symptoms of a condition they decided would be best cured in the minors. Ventura lacked the poise he showed so often in 2014, team officials explained, a curious departure of the confidence that set him apart from other 24-year-old pitchers.
Ventura departed without specific mechanical instructions from pitching coach Dave Eiland. There were none necessary, Eiland explained. Ventura floundered because of his mentality, not because of his mechanics. The club tasked Ventura with re-discovering the pitcher who bullied opponents with his fastball and flummoxed them with his curveball last season.
“Get your confidence back,” Eiland said. “Get your confidence, get your swagger back. That killer instinct. Last year, he’d get runners on base and he’d rise to the occasion and be at his best. And he’s having trouble with that. It’s all about confidence and conviction and belief. He just needs to get that killer instinct back.”
The performance on Monday was representative. Ventura buzzed through the first inning against Pittsburgh, one of the National League’s best teams. After a few hits in the second inning, he folded. He failed to locate his fastball, and he lacked consistency with his offspeed pitches.
“Any player, when they have some struggles, some self-doubt creeps in,” Eiland said. “That’s what I’m seeing in him right now. As he gets that back, and the belief back, the kid’s going to be everything we thought he was going to be.”
The Royals witnessed flashes of greatness in 2014. Ventura posted an identical 3.20 ERA in the regular season and the postseason. He spun seven scoreless innings in the sixth game of the World Series. Along the way, Ventura puffed his chest and swaggered through danger. His confidence never appeared to flag.
This season was far less forgiving. He missed most of June with irritation in his ulnar nerve in his right elbow. Ventura left two starts due to cramps. He received ejections in two others, as Royals officials wondered whether Ventura thought his status as an opening day starter required him to intimidate opponents.
“I’m not going to answer for him,” Eiland said. “But he went through a lot these last few months. I’m not using it as an excuse. I’m not speaking for him. But facts are facts. He went through a lot.”
Royals officials stressed this move was not unique. Ventura lockers between Edinson Volquez and Kelvin Herrera. Both pitchers were demoted earlier in their careers. Both returned, chastened and motivated, to the major leagues. Yost related the story of Herrera, who was sent down in 2013, to Ventura during their meeting.
Herrera intended to pass a similar message to Ventura. Herrera did not have a chance to speak with him early in the afternoon. Ventura did not appear in the clubhouse when it was open to reporters. But Herrera planned to find him.
“We need him,” Herrera said. “We need him right, mentally, physically. I know it’s bad, because it’s not the best place to be, in Class AAA. But it’s going to help him.”
Volquez carried a similar message. He had been demoted by Texas and by Cincinnati. He was once released midseason by San Diego. He had experienced similar situations “too many times,” he said.
Volquez mentioned the specific stresses a pitcher faces during his second season. The rest of the league can counter due to video study and advanced scouting. The player experiences increased scrutiny.
“You put a lot of pressure on yourself, too,” Volquez said. “Because you’re trying to do a little more than what you can do, because you pitched the year before. But then it’s the second year, and everybody knows you already.”
Both Eiland and Yost insisted they expected Ventura to regain his form from 2014. They predicted he would contribute in August, September and October.
Inside the clubhouse, Volquez jabbed his thumb toward Ventura’s empty locker.
“I think he’ll be fine,” Volquez said. “He’ll be all right. He’s just got to go down there and do the best he can. Everybody knows he can pitch in the big leagues.”