The signal flashed from the far end of the dugout, where Johnny Cueto sat with Edinson Volquez, and on that night in August at Kauffman Stadium, Yordano Ventura felt compelled to oblige. He abandoned his wind-up and flung a quick-pitch toward the plate, mimicking a favorite move of Cueto.
The imitation delighted Cueto and Volquez. The television cameras captured their laughter. The broadcast did not document the ire of pitching coach Dave Eiland. He found both veterans and instructed them not to interfere like that again. Then Eiland pulled Ventura aside.
Don’t try to be anyone else, Eiland told Ventura, who was then only three weeks removed from a one-day demotion to the minors. Be yourself. Be Yordano Ventura.
“And since then,” Eiland said, “he has been.”
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Two months later, just past 1 p.m Tuesday during a pre-postseason rally at the ballpark, a slender figure emerged from the Royals dugout. A flock of adoring fans roared when his No. 30 jersey appeared on the center-field videoboard. A minute later, the crowd cheered again when a set of dreadlocks bounced across the screen. The duo arrived in fitting fashion. This October, Johnny Cueto will follow in the footsteps of Yordano Ventura.
The Royals publicized that plan on Tuesday after weeks of internal debate and external speculation. Ventura will start Game 1 when the Royals open a best-of-five American League Division Series on Thursday, manager Ned Yost announced. Cueto will pitch Game 2 on Friday. The move speaks to the organization’s confidence in Ventura, Cueto’s concerns about pitching on short rest and the team’s belief in a meritocracy.
After Volquez starts Game 3 on Sunday, the Royals will consider using Ventura on short rest for Game 4, if needed. The team could also turn to Kris Medlen or Chris Young in that spot. The configuration slates Cueto to potentially pitch, on regular rest, in Game 5.
The organization sacrificed three prized pitching prospects to acquire Cueto in late July. But as his production sagged, highlighted by a five-start swoon with a 9.57 ERA, the team shifted him to a complimentary role. On the eve of the playoffs, Ventura serves as the Royals’ best starter, and he will be utilized as such.
During September, Ventura posted a 3.14 ERA with 49 strikeouts in 43 innings. He spun 14 innings of one-run baseball in his final two outings. Across that same month, Cueto skidded to a 5.58 ERA, with opposing hitters punching up an .855 on-base plus slugging percentage. Cueto did benefit from improved chemistry with catcher Salvador Perez in their past four outings, with a 3.24 ERA during that time. Even so, the Royals favor Ventura.
“Ventura’s really been excellent in his last five or six or seven starts,” Yost said. “We wanted to keep everybody on five days’ rest. So that worked out best for all of us.”
This plan slipped into motion in the second week of September, when Cueto requested to pitch on a Sunday evening game in Baltimore instead of a Saturday afternoon game. The Royals acquiesced, and shifted Ventura a day ahead of Cueto on the schedule. That lined up with Game 1 of the ALDS.
In the weeks leading up to the playoffs, Yost and Eiland asked Cueto if he wanted to leapfrog Ventura and set up for Game 1. Cueto demurred, citing his worries about working on short rest. Even when Yost suggested pitching only a few innings in last Sunday’s regular-season finale, Cueto felt uncomfortable.
So the Royals installed Ventura atop their rotation’s hierarchy. He reclaimed the position he abdicated after a first half marked by on-field brawls, emotional outbursts and erratic performance.
The Royals handed Ventura a five-year, $23 million extension this past spring and declared him their opening day starter. Little went right from there. In April alone, Ventura jawed with Angels superstar Mike Trout, drilled Oakland third baseman Brett Lawrie with a pitch and sparked a fracas with the White Sox.
Ventura’s pitching suffered in the aftermath. He felt uncomfortable throwing on the inner half of the plate. He feared hitting a batter and starting a fight.
“I think at the beginning of the year, I put a lot on him, being the No. 1 starter,” Yost said. “He put a lot of extra pressure on himself.”
The nadir occurred on July 22, when the Royals optioned Ventura to Class AAA Omaha to make room on the roster as Jason Vargas returned from the disabled list. Ventura had given up six runs in four innings two nights prior, enough to inflate his ERA to 5.19. The organization booted him because he possessed minor-league options.
An injury intervened on Ventura’s behalf. He never even left for Nebraska. On the same day Ventura learned about his demotion, Vargas severed the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. He would need season-ending Tommy John surgery.
“When Vargy went down, Ned and I looked at each other, and it wasn’t even a conversation,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “ ‘Who (gives us the) best chance four or five days from now? It’s Yordano Ventura.’ ”
Neither Moore nor Yost would point to that moment as a turning point for Ventura. Yost insisted the demotion “wasn’t a light-switch moment for him.”
The statistics disagree. Ventura carried that 5.19 ERA, along with a 4-7 record and opposing hitters posting a .752 OPS. Ever since, he is 9-1 with a 3.10 ERA, and has held batters to a .651 OPS.
Yost has often cited Cueto as a calming, nurturing presence for Ventura. But Ventura has not flourished by imitating Cueto. He has merely returned to the form he showed during his sensational rookie season, which culminated with seven scoreless innings in Game 6 of the World Series.
At low ebb in 2015, Ventura wore his emotions on his face. He pouted on the mound. He allowed his shoulders to slump. At one point, first baseman Eric Hosmer counseled him midway through a game to stop sulking.
During his renaissance these past two months, Ventura has bottled his emotions inside his 6-foot frame. He maintains an impassive expression. His arm provides the drama.
“He’s more calm on the mound,” Hosmer said. “If some type of adversity happens on the mound, or a couple pitches don’t go his way, he doesn’t really get emotional that much any more. I think he’s learned to how calm his nerves a little bit and focus on what he needs to focus on, and not let any other team get in his head.”
When Ventura possesses the confidence to throw his fastball inside, he can flummox hitters with fastballs and changeups on the outer half of the plate. Eiland also commended Ventura for being less reliant on his fastball in times of crisis.
“The hitters have to respect 98 mph,” Eiland said. “And now you’re throwing secondary pitches in fastball counts. That’s a lot to think about for a hitter.”
The success of Ventura also presented a quandary for the Royals. When the team acquired Cueto, it was expected he would headline their rotation. Now he will stand in the shadow of his 24-year-old teammate. As the Royals chart a return to the World Series, they intend to ride Ventura.
“He’s gotten back to being that guy, being the ace of this team,” Hosmer said. “I think that’s a good sign for us. Because when he’s on, he’s pretty hard to hit.”
Notes from Ned Yost’s news conference Tuesday
▪ As for injuries, Yost said “everyone’s going to be fine.”
Designated hitter Kendrys Morales had tightness in his quad but “feels much better.”
Lorenzo Cain missed three of the Royals’ final four games after fouling a pitch off his right knee in Chicago, leaving him with a bone bruise. Cain’s “going to be sore,” Yost said, but also noted that Cain played the 2014 postseason with the same injury.
“It’s nothing that’s going to affect him,” Yost said.
▪ The Royals’ 25-man roster for the ALDS should be finalized Wednesday, Yost said. He said the roster wouldn’t change based on the winner of the Wild Card Game. ALDS rosters are not due until the day of Game 1.