Sam Mellinger

Yordano Ventura pitches through the drama, becomes a scene-stealer for the Royals

Columnist Sam Mellinger writes: Yordano Ventura’s starts this season have been defined by drama — cramps, taunts, ejections, and too often lots of runs. But on Tuesday night against the Cincinnati Reds, Ventura showed everyone why the Royals made him their opening-day starter and gave him a contract that guarantees at least $23 million.
Columnist Sam Mellinger writes: Yordano Ventura’s starts this season have been defined by drama — cramps, taunts, ejections, and too often lots of runs. But on Tuesday night against the Cincinnati Reds, Ventura showed everyone why the Royals made him their opening-day starter and gave him a contract that guarantees at least $23 million. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

Yordano Ventura’s best start since the World Series began in a danger zone. This was back in the bullpen, warmups, the time for pitcher and catcher to get loose and see what they’ll be working with and, well, tonight the catcher would be working with a bruise.

Ventura was wild during those warmups, spiking a curveball or two and then bouncing a sinker off Salvador Perez’s shin guard hard enough that the Royals’ catcher tapped out. He gave up. Let someone else catch the rest of these warmup pitches.

“I’ll see you in the game,” Perez remembered telling to Ventura. “You want to hit me, hit me in the game. Don’t hit me in the bullpen.”

So, yeah. Not what you’d expect to lead into a start so good that the Royals hope it can turn around the season of their best starting pitcher.

The Royals beat the Cincinnati Reds 3-0 on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium, and as has happened so often this season, there was a lot to like. This is the Royals’ first consecutive shutouts since 1992 — long enough ago that the second of those was the night that George Brett got his 3,000th hit. Mike Moustakas had three more hits. Lorenzo Cain had two more highlight catches. Reliever Wade Davis still hasn’t given up a run.

But Ventura stole the night. His starts this season have been defined by drama — cramps, taunts, ejections, and too often lots of runs.

Diagnosing him has become like a pastime in Kansas City, something that Royals fans and coaches have in common. There are any number of explanations for the Royals’ opening day starter carrying an ERA well above 5.00 into this game.

There are the mechanical, like him opening his front side too often which has ruined his location. There are the practical, like his fastball velocity and curveball break being down a touch.

But the theory that has the most traction within the organization is that Ventura began the season trying too hard to live up to his new contract and status as the league champs’ best pitcher. He always has had an edge to him. He often has wandered over the line from confident to cocky.

But maybe some combination of last year’s success, returning to his native Dominican Republic as a hero, the contract and opening day start became too much. So he was overzealous and sloppy in retaliating against the Oakland Athletics’ Brett Lawrie, misguided in jawing at the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, and too obvious in cussing at Adam Eaton of the Chicago White Sox.

It wasn’t all his fault, but enough of it was that he incited a bench-clearing brawl with the White Sox in Chicago that changed the conversation about him and his team. The mess earned him a suspension and solidified a new reputation, and at some point, with player after coach after player after friend telling him he had screwed up and needed to keep his focus, the pendulum swung too far the other way.

He lost that edge. At times, he looked almost detached. Ventura had seen last year’s ace for the Royals, James Shields, build a nine-figure career out of turning that fire into focus, but Shields was a rookie when he was Ventura’s age.

Ventura is 24 years old, which isn’t so young that it’s an excuse, but is young enough to be an explanation.

So all of that created a volatile context for the Royals going into Ventura’s eighth start. The rotation has been, by far, the team’s biggest concern and Ventura’s unpredictability is a large part of that.

Yost is unfailingly confident in his players, but even he admitted he was nervous after hearing about the bounced sinker that pushed Perez out of the bullpen session.

“Then the first curveball he threw, it was just a beautiful curveball,” Yost said.

Ventura blew through the first three batters he faced on nine easy pitches. The second inning went by with nine more. Ventura was as efficient as he’s been all season, needing just 88 pitches for seven innings, giving up four hits, no walks, and striking out six.

Ventura’s fastball, which has been a bit slower this season, touched 99 mph. His breaking stuff, which some scouts say lacks the movement of last year, got five of his six strikeouts.

Ventura was so good, so often that he got through the rare moments of error. In the third inning, the first two Cincinnati batters reached base. The next bunted them over, so there were runners at second and third with one out. The Reds’ first real threat.

But Ventura got a groundout on a 98-mph fastball and then set Brayan Peña up so well with curveballs and fastballs that a poorly executed changeup got the strikeout. The pitch was too far up in the zone, and caught too much plate, but Peña looked as if he was expecting the fastball and swung through it.

Ventura actually had not been pitching as poorly as his numbers. He had been hurt by giving up big innings in each of his last three starts, but he still did enough things right to pitch into at least the sixth inning in all but one start this season.

But he had yet to have the whole package of Tuesday night. All three pitches working well, and that killer balance between fire and composure. This is silly, like a compliment for matching your shoes, but he fielded two comebackers and threw to first base without incident.

He repeated his mechanics better than he had all season. This was the first game where he hadn’t allowed a walk, and the first game where he hadn’t allowed an extra-base hit.

This was in every way what the Royals had in mind when they made Ventura their opening-day starter and gave him a contract that guarantees at least $23 million.

The only concern, if you can call it that, is what Yost described as a sliced fingernail that opened in Ventura’s last start. The effects were covered by a treatment from the training staff until at least the sixth inning, according to Ventura. That’s at least part of why Yost didn’t give Ventura the eighth inning. But it shouldn’t be an issue, especially with an extra day’s rest before his next start.

Afterward, Ventura, with teammate Christian Colon translating, said this was the best he felt all season. The interview was dotted with playful looks and giggles between Ventura and teammate Edinson Volquez, who was sitting nearby and pitched seven innings of the Royals’ 6-0 shutout Sunday against the New York Yankees.

At some point, a reporter asked Ventura whether he had pitched better than Volquez. Ventura laughed and stared at the floor.

“Yeah, he did,” Volquez said.

This was the 2014 version of Ventura, as good as any start he had last year, at least during the regular season. If this keeps up, it goes a long way in squashing the worries around the Royals’ rotation and determining whether he and his teammates get another shot at the playoffs.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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