For a six-batter span on Thursday night, a sequence plucked from an otherwise dreary 2-1 loss to Baltimore, Royals starter Yordano Ventura touched the ceiling of his potential.
His fastball graced 99 mph. His curveball snapped into the zone for strikes. His change-up continued to befuddle opponents. The combination buoyed him to six consecutive strikeouts in the fifth and sixth innings.
The 22-year-old appeared at the height of his powers. His evening would end with one out in the seventh, but his anti-climatic departure did little to reduce the promise surrounding him. Ventura, 2-3, 2.40 ERA, struck out nine batters in all, and cracked the century mark in pitches (104) for the fourth time in his 11-start career.
“Just threw another fine ballgame for us,” manager Ned Yost said.
The defeat snapped a three-game winning streak. A familiar culprit returned: The lineup once again disappointed. Baltimore took the lead in the fourth on a two-run homer by Nelson Cruz. The Royals never matched that. They wasted yet another quality start from Ventura, his third in a row.
“He has been throwing a lot of strikes,” said Bruce Chen, who translates for Ventura. “Every time you throw a lot of strikes, good things are going to happen.”
His ascendance coincides as the industry ponders how to keep pitchers like him on the diamond. A slew of Tommy John surgeries have wracked the game in recent months. Baseball officials sound almost helpless in their inability to prevent them. Pitching is an unnatural act, and it wreaks havoc on the arm.
At once, Ventura represents the game’s most valuable and most fragile commodity. He is homegrown starting pitcher still more than half a decade from free agency. His delivery is clean. His arsenal is deep. His maturity is evident. His future could not look brighter.
And yet there is the fear, an unquenchable one in the wake of recent events. Ventura throws one of baseball’s hardest fastballs. He averaged 96.7 mph per heater, the fastest of any qualified starter. The sixth pitcher on that list was Marlins budding ace Jose Fernandez.
Earlier this week, Miami announced Fernandez, their 21-year-old phenom, had torn his ulnar collateral ligament. He will undergo surgery on Friday. He had no history of serious arm issues.
A day after Fernandez’s injury was confirmed, Texas revealed Martin Perez, their 23-year-old right-hander, suffered a similar calamity. Even before these two went down, there had already been more than 30 pitchers felled by the surgery this season, an epidemic that includes Royals reliever Luke Hochevar.
“It makes you pause and think,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “Like everybody else is doing throughout the industry. I don’t think anybody knows the answer and the cure for it all.”
The Royals have monitored Ventura carefully. His progression has been gentle. His largest innings jump occurred in his second season, when he went from 22 2/3 as a professional rookie to 64 1/3 in 2010. Ventura threw 150 innings in 2013 as he rose from Class AA to the majors. Knowing they expected 180 to 200 innings this season, the Royals barred him from pitching in winter ball.
Once on the mound, Ventura is free from constraints. The coaches can only counsel him to stay in his delivery. Asking him to throw softer would invite injury and fly in the face of competition.
“What are you going to do?” Eiland said. “Tell a guy to go into a game and back off?”
In a game? No. In between starts is a separate issue.
Ventura arrived at spring training in February dogged in his pursuit of the rotation’s final opening. Eiland saw it in his early work. Ventura operated with maximum effort. “When he got on the mound to throw his sides and his BPs, his first pitch off the rubber was ‘Voom!’” Eiland said.
Both Eiland and fellow starter James Shields advised Ventura to pace himself. Shields is a physical marvel. In nine big-league seasons, he has never been on the disabled list. He insists there is no secret. He credits an adherence to routine.
Ventura is still developing that schedule. But he listened to the tutelage. Eiland still monitors him. The Royals will do all they can to protect Ventura, even if a guarantee is impossible.
He is still so young. On Thursday night, his mother, Marisol, watched him pitch in a game for the first time. She recently received a visa to visit from the Dominican Republic.
“He was very emotional to have his mom see him pitch live,” Chen said. “He wanted to do a good job so his mom could see what a good son she has. He gave everything he could.”
To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/McCulloughStar.