Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger files: Yordano Ventura comes of age in Royals’ playoffs

Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura gave a thumbs-up signal to his teammates, and the feeling was mutual.
Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura gave a thumbs-up signal to his teammates, and the feeling was mutual. The Kansas City Star

Editor's note: this story was originally published October 4, 2014.

The air was light and still on the night that Yordano Ventura introduced himself to American baseball fans. This had already been the craziest week of his professional life, long before he showed up on television screens across the country, this baby-faced flamethrower in the hat that looks two sizes too big.

The way this crazy Royals season has gone, it only made sense for him to respond with a coming-of-age start, a night that will serve as the tangible example of what he is capable.

The Royals beat the Angels 4-1 in 11 innings to take a two games to none lead in this American League Division Series here on Friday night. That is a blowout by the incredible standards they’re setting in this wild return to the playoffs. Eric Hosmer delivered the big moment, a bat-flipping, two-run homer in the 11th, and four relievers combined for four critical scoreless innings.

But in so many ways, this was Ventura’s night, both for what he allowed the Royals to do in this specific game and what he unlocks for them in the future.

“Everybody’s an enemy,” Ventura said of his style, through translator Jeremy Guthrie.

“He put us on his back, to be honest with you,” outfielder Jarrod Dyson said.

Ventura threw seven innings, striking out five and walking just one. The only run came when one of his boyhood heroes, Albert Pujols, shortened his swing and punched a single through a hole on the right side of the infield.

This is what the Royals have always wanted from Ventura, a shutdown performance on a big stage, backed by balancing the confidence of unhittable stuff with the humility and focus to do all the little things necessary to unleash it. This has always been the gift and the curse of the truly elite, to work as hard as the less fortunate when given such a head start.

It’s not lost on anyone with the Royals that if this series goes to a decisive fifth game, Ventura would be pitching on full rest. If it doesn’t, he could pitch game two of the ALCS after James Shields pitches the opener on full rest.

After weeks of daily frantic baseball, winning two games here with their ace starting Sunday’s game three at home gives the Royals the tantalizing opportunity to plant their feet and even set up their rotation. That becomes even more important if this is the Ventura they can expect.

He threw 95 pitches, and 22 of them came in at 100 mph or faster. More than half his pitches were 98 mph or faster. Balls coming from a pitchers hand at 100 mph give hitters 0.38 seconds to recognize the pitch, decide whether to swing, and get a 30-some ounce piece of wood through the strike zone.

When Ventura mixes in a slow curveball — like the one he struck out Pujols with in the fourth, or the ones he threw exclusively on a silly strikeout of C.J. Cron in the sixth — he’s basically not playing fair.

“That was some electric stuff,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia says.

There are moments where he looks like a 23-year-old rookie who before this year had never thrown even 140 professional innings. The exaggerated deep breaths, tendency to overthrow in certain situations.

But in Ventura the Royals have perhaps the game’s most valued commodity — a young star pitcher with ace potential and years of cheap club control.

That story is circulating around the wider sports world more, as the Royals’ wild ride becomes a bigger national interest and Ventura’s place in it grows.

Before Friday night, he was mostly known as the stage filler for Ned Yost’s bullpen blunder in the sixth inning of the AL Wild Card Game, giving up a long home run to Brandon Moss, and then seeing an impassioned reaction from former Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez (another boyhood hero of Ventura, and the man he’s often compared to).

Martinez became something like the national spokesman for a popular sentiment criticizing Yost’s bullpen management, in particular putting Ventura in the first high-leverage relief appearance of his career with the team’s playoff chances presumably on the line. But for Ventura, part of what comes out of it was a confidence boost from one of the best pitchers in baseball history.

There had been concern from some whether the experience in the Wild Card Game might shake Ventura. He certainly looked it on the mound, as the A’s celebrated and the Royals trailed. But in the minutes and hours and days after that game, Ventura was swarmed with support. Not just from Martinez, but others throughout baseball and the Royals organization.

The message was constant. Forget it. You have all the talent in the world, and will show the world when you’re back in your normal role. Friday night was his chance, and it’s hard to imagine him doing much better.

“I think it was all because of that Wild Card Game we had,” Dyson said. “He came in, he felt like he didn’t do so good, didn’t get the job done, so he just wanted another chance. So he got another chance.”

Ventura wasn’t the only reason the Royals are one win out of three tries away from advancing to the ALCS. In baseball, it’s never about just one person. But the moment does have a tendency to find you, and you’re either up to it or you’re not. On Friday, the moment found Ventura and he responded with one of his best games as a big leaguer on the biggest stage he’s ever pitched on.

That response is an enormous part of why the Royals are coming home with a chance to clinch on Sunday. It’s also a critical component to the Royals’ remarkable opportunity, both in this series and beyond.

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

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