Judging the Royals

Ventura can’t finish off hitters and the Astros take game one


Game 1 of the American League Division Series is about to start and Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura is throwing his warmup pitches.

Pitchers get eight warmup pitches between innings, and if any of the eight pitches Yordano throws is a curveball, I miss it.

All I see is Ventura throwing easy heat to catcher Salvador Perez.

Ventura can throw a fastball 100 mph, but if you ask what to look for when Yordano pitches, you hear about the curve.

If Ventura does not throw his curve for a strike, big-league hitters will quit worrying about his off-speed stuff, dial up their swings and that Ventura fastball becomes less effective.

Yordano has to establish his curve for strikes to keep the hitters off the fastball and he throws a curveball strike on the second pitch of the game — unfortunately, it’s not a good one. Jose Altuve starts things off with a line-drive single to left.

The next batter, George Springer, goes 2-2 and when a batter has two strikes he’s at the pitcher’s mercy; the batter has to swing at anything close. Ventura makes three pitches, but Springer fouls off all of them.

Yordano then tries a curve but bounces it in the dirt, not close enough to entice Springer into swinging. With the count 3-2, Ventura throws a fastball and misses the zone and an opportunity.

The Springer walk set up the Astros inning

With a runner on first base and two strikes on a batter, the pitcher is still in a decent position because the hitter will have to swing at the pitcher’s pitch.

Make a good one and your defense can turn two. Strike the hitter out and if the runner on first base goes in motion — and after the count reached 3-2, Altuve did — and you have a chance at a strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double play.

Once the count reaches 2-2 on Springer, Ventura has a chance to throw a pitch that will get him out of the inning but fails to do it in five attempts. Springer walks and pushes Altuve into scoring position.

Ventura gets the next batter, Carlos Correa, to 0-2 and once again can’t finish off a hitter who’s down in the count. Ventura misses with two curves, has two fastballs fouled off and then throws another curve that gets whacked. The bases are loaded.

Ned Yost does not bring the infield in

If there are less than two down and a runner on third base, a manager might bring his infield in. If the manager considers the run crucial, he wants to cut the runner down at the plate. But bringing the infield in has its risks: infielders are closer to home plate and have less range. Bringing the infield in early can turn a minor rally into a big inning.

In the first inning the Astros have runners at third and less than two down on two occasions and Ned does not bring his infield in either time. Yost is gambling that Ventura will cut down the hitter at the plate without the runners scoring or, if he loses that bet, that his team will score more than two runs.

Ned loses both bets.

Yordano Ventura and the second inning

After struggling with his curveball and giving up two runs in the first inning, Ventura is back out warming up for the second. This time he throws at least three curveballs in warmups ... probably a sign that he wasn’t happy with that pitch in the first inning and is trying to get a better feel for it.

Once the second inning begins, Ventura has better luck with the curve, but gives up another run on a double and single; both on fastballs. Before Yordano can make it to the third inning, the rains come and his night is over.

The Kendrys Morales homer

In the bottom of the second inning Kendrys Morales homers for two reasons:

1. Colin McHugh falls behind 2-1 and throws Kendrys a fastball in a fastball count. When big league hitters get the pitch they’re expecting, they tend to hit it hard.

2. And to make matters worse—for the Astros—McHugh throws the pitch inside. Power hitters look to “turn and burn” in fastball counts. A smart pitcher will go to the outside part of the plate and try to neutralize the hitter’s power. But McHugh comes inside and Morales is ready for it—a homer into the right field corner.

What makes Chris Young tough

After the rain delay Chris Young relieves Ventura and throws four innings, striking out seven and giving up one run on a 3-1 fastball thrown to George Springer. (Remember the part about big league hitters getting the pitch they’re expecting?) The fastball is supposed to be down and away, but Young misses up and out over the plate.

Still, it’s a good relief appearance by Young and it’s logical to ask how he does it. Chris throws a fastball in the upper 80s and a slider in the low 80s and that’s about it.

Ask people who know and you hear how everybody’s fastball is different.

Wade Davis throws nice and easy and then this fastball seems to hit a second gear as it approaches the plate. Kelvin Herrera’s fastball appears to be shot out of a cannon. Chris Young is long and lanky and delivers the ball in a relaxed manner and then suddenly it’s in your face.

Being 6-10 helps; Young appears to stride about halfway to home plate before releasing the ball, but his fastball is heavy and tends to ride up in the zone. It’s an unusual action for a fastball and when hitters see something unusual, they can have a hard time squaring it up.

The rest of the game

Besides Kendrys Morales’ two homers, the Royals have trouble getting anything going on offense. They have a total of six hits and one walk and that’s not enough to string a rally together.

In the eighth inning Colby Rasmus ambushes a first-pitch Ryan Madson cutter, the score goes to 5-2 and that’s how the game ends.

Johnny Cueto and Game 2

Astros ace Dallas Keuchel is scheduled to start on Sunday. Keuchel finished the regular season 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA. It doesn’t mean he can’t be beat—he lost four games—but it does mean the odds are in Houston’s favor and that makes Friday afternoon’s game a big one. (On the other hand, all playoff games are big ones; some just seem bigger.)

The Royals need Johnny Cueto to pitch well this afternoon and if fans want an early indications of how things are going, they should watch Cueto’s cutter and changeup; if they’re up and out over the plate Johnny might have a short afternoon.

Salvador Perez setting a lower target seems to have helped, but Cueto still needs to make sure he’s not letting his front shoulder open too soon. If Sal will call down and away fastballs early on and force Cueto to extend and finish off those pitches that will help every other pitch in Cueto’s arsenal.

But if Sal sets a target down and away and then his mitt moves up and back toward the heart of the plate, look for the Astros to do damage.

Whatever happens, enjoy the game. There are 22 big-league teams are sitting at home right now.