Yordano Ventura emerged from the dugout, jogged through the rain and entered the eighth inning for the first time as a Royal. He waded into unfamiliar territory on Friday night, undaunted by both the elements and the sluggers in Baltimore’s lineup, en route to a 5-0 victory.
In his finest start in the majors, Ventura struck out a career-high eight batters during eight scoreless frames. He tossed 113 pitches, the most in his seven-start career, surpassing his previous benchmark of 101. He did not expect to pitch the eighth, but would later say he felt “grateful” for the opportunity.
In the final inning, the only drama occurred when Ventura yielded a two-out single to Orioles catcher Matt Wieters.
“One more,” manager Ned Yost mouthed from the dugout to Ventura, his 22-year-old phenom. “And that’s it.”
Ventura responded with aplomb. He got shortstop J.J. Hardy to ground out with a curveball. Ventura pounded his fist into his glove and returned to the safety of the dugout. The inning was emblematic of his evening. He scattered seven hits, two walks and a hit batsman to pacify the Orioles.
“I’m glad he’s on my team,” said designated hitter Billy Butler, who drove in two runs with a pair of hits. “There’s a reason why his nickname’s Ace.”
A late-April storm delayed the game for 55 minutes. About 90 minutes into the evening, the rains returned. Still, the Royals, 11-11, posted their magic number — they are now 11-0 when scoring four runs — and plenty of room for Ventura to breathe.
“He said it went really well,” said Bruce Chen, who translates for Ventura. “But he wants to thank the team for supporting him, playing good defense and scoring a lot of runs.”
The Royals came to Camden Yards still stinging from one of their most pitiable offensive performances of the season. On Thursday afternoon at Progressive Field, Indians starter Corey Kluber pitched the first complete game of his career, a one-run, 11-strikeout pummeling. A day later, Yost tipped his cap to Kluber and shrugged off his team’s ongoing offensive malaise.
“Even when it’s going good, you’re always going to be complaining about the offense,” Yost said. “It’s just the way it is. If you score five, and win, 5-2, you think you should have scored 10.”
The Royals lived that axiom in the first inning against Ubaldo Jimenez. They scored two runs on a walk and three singles. Omar Infante jostled the offense to life with a one-out walk. Eric Hosmer followed with a single. Butler won a eight-pitch battle with an RBI liner to right, and Alex Gordon stroked a run-scoring hit of his own.
Jimenez leaned into the ropes. His guests could not flatten him. Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas grounded out and let Jimenez wiggle free.
Through the middle innings, the lineup went frigid in the chilly rain. Jimenez found his rhythm, and the Royals did not collect another hit until Jarrod Dyson laid down a seventh-inning bunt single. But Ventura stayed steady.
He worked with traffic on the bases all evening. He plunked Nelson Cruz with a 98-mph fastball in the first, and yielded a pair of singles to start the second. There was a leadoff single in the third, a walk and a single in the fourth, another leadoff single in the fifth.
“That’s not an easy go,” Yost said about the Orioles lineup. “Those are really good, solid hitters over there.”
And still the Orioles could not crack Ventura. He possessed touch with his change-up and curveball, a quality he lacked in his last outing, a four-run stumble against Minnesota. His fastball remains world-class.
The variety of his strikeouts told the story. Ventura pumped a 98-mph fastball past Chris Davis in the first. He froze Cruz with a third-inning change-up. Former Royal David Lough fanned twice on curves, as did Adam Jones in the sixth.
The lineup came through with another two-run rally in the seventh, and Ventura had a four-run advantage to protect. After eight innings, he had thrown 96 pitches. In his six previous starts, he had topped that number just once.
But Yost was committed.
“He was mowing them down,” he said, and Yost decided only to remove Ventura if he allowed two men on base. When Wieters reached, Yost trusted Ventura to escape.
His faith was rewarded. Another step in the development of Ventura, such a critical piece for this organization in 2014 and beyond, took place.
Ventura believed this was his best performance in the majors. His manager did not disagree.
“It’s as good as I’ve seen him,” Yost said. “He had everything going tonight.”