Yordano Ventura came out Wednesday throwing his trademark smoke. His fastball, a blur at 96 mph on the first pitch, slowly crept upward as he worked to former Royal Gregor Blanco to lead off game two of the World Series.
Seven times, Ventura challenged the power-challenged outfielder with the heat. Seven times, it resulted in a called strike, ball or foul ball.
But you can’t just keep throwing heat to big-league hitters, even speed guys like Blanco. So on the eighth pitch, which came on a full count, Blanco improbably turned on a 98-mph fastball and deposited it into the right-field bullpen at Kauffman Stadium.
The homer not only gave the Giants a one-run lead — which would become moot with the Royals’ sixth-inning rally and 7-2 victory — it also was only the 19th leadoff homer in the history of the World Series.
Not bad for a player who spent most of the season as the Giants’ fourth outfielder, only to get pushed into action in September when starter Angel Pagan was lost for the season because of back surgery.
“It’s great to have a guy like Gregor on your club, who has that experience leading off,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said before the game. “He really has softened the blow of losing Pagan with his play, and he’s a guy that can do a lot of things for you. Great defensively, and he’s a good leadoff hitter. He’s the type of guy you can do different things with. You can bunt, hit-and-run, steal a base for you.”
And apparently, hit for power, though he hasn’t shown that tool in the big leagues. In 2,244 major-league plate appearances, Blanco, 30, has hit a paltry 15 home runs. That averages out to roughly four over a full season.
But Blanco did show other tools when he was a member of the Royals, who acquired him along with relievers Tim Collins and Jesse Chavez in July 2010 for outfielder Rick Ankiel and reliever Kyle Farnsworth.
Blanco played 49 games for the Royals, posted a .274 batting average and .348 on-base percentage in 203 at-bats. He also stole 10 bases. But he could not make the team the next year out of spring training, and was shipped to the Washington Nationals.
He resurfaced with the Giants a year later, in 2012, and has remained ever since, appearing in at least 141 games the last three seasons while batting .257 with a .336 on-base percentage. Over that time span, he’s hit 13 regular-season home runs — again, roughly four a year.
Entering Wednesday, he was batting only .180 with a .281 on-base percentage this postseason. While his solo blast Wednesday was his first of the postseason, he also recorded a seventh-inning walk as he finished one for four while also making an impression on his former manager in Kansas City, Ned Yost.
“He’s come a long way — he’s a tough little out,” Yost said. “He runs the bases, he’s very athletic, he can run, slap bunt. ... He’s been tough against us this series. Every time he comes up, you got that concern in your mind about how we are gonna get this guy out. He’s been great for them in this series.”
Blanco, for his part, also noted how far his old team has come since he was a Royal.
“I played in that center field,” Blanco said. “The crowd, when I played here, it wasn’t this big. But what they’ve accomplished the last four years since I haven’t been here. … I know how hard they worked to get in this position, so I’m really glad they’re here.”