As the Royals were playing host to the Cardinals at Kauffman Stadium in June, Yordano Ventura couriered a home-cooked Dominican beef stew prepared by his visiting mother for a countryman in town.
It made for a nice few hours spent with Oscar Taveras, whom Ventura approached and befriended in 2011 in Class A ball.
The basis of their relationship was simply that they were natives of the same nation on parallel tracks to the big leagues in remote outposts far from home like Geneva, Ill. (Ventura), and Davenport, Iowa (Taveras).
They kept in touch frequently from that point forward, Ventura said Monday, and became “very close friends.”
So the news of Taveras’ death in a car accident Sunday was a jolt to Ventura as he prepares to start game six of the World Series for the Royals tonight at Kauffman and the Giants on the cusp of clinching with a 3-2 series lead.
“You could tell it hit him pretty good,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said.
Through a remarkable rookie year, Ventura nearly always has demonstrated a keen knack for filtering out emotions that might interfere with lasering in on the tasks before him.
“The fire burning is white-hot inside of him, but he has to channel it the right way. And he is,” Eiland said. “He wants this moment.”
But this is all a different tier of challenge.
Ventura is processing and compartmentalizing emotions over Taveras, whose death he mourns, whose family his thoughts are with … but of whose demise he momentarily is trying to tell himself, “Such is life.”
And then there’s the matter of competing in the most important game of his life, in which his performance will hinge less on his indisputably prodigious talent than his ability to command it.
“If his emotions are in control,” Eiland said, “then his body will follow.”
That’s been the working dynamic, really, his entire life.
Much of Ventura’s maturity, not to mention the foundation of his talent, was derived from circumstances of his childhood in the Dominican.
He was 14 when he dropped out of school to begin working to better support his single mother.
There surely is a lot more to this story, which gets lost in the language barrier as Ventura still favors speaking Spanish.
But when asked about working a construction job then, he put it this way Monday through translator Jeremy Guthrie:
“I worked in the shop with my stepfather, and I also drove a truck, like a delivery truck … and then I worked driving a truck as well,” he said. “God works in different ways to help you get to your destiny or what you’re made to be, so that was an important part of it.”
He was 17 and weighed perhaps 120 pounds when the Royals signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2008.
But even before he started blowing up radar guns and making venerable super-scout Art Stewart gush about whether there would be a new Ventura scale of measures revolutionizing baseball, you could see the arm speed itself there.
And something else in him.
“More than anything he was just always kind of a fearless guy,” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “He just kind of had that look like, ‘I’m coming at you.’ ”
That almost couldn’t happen fast enough for manager Ned Yost after the first Ventura sighting he can recall.
It was in spring training 2011, after general manager Dayton Moore asked, “Have you ever seen this kid throw?” and urged him to watch.
Yost was instantly dazzled. So much that he obsessed that spring trying to see more of him.
“I would check to see when he was going to throw, get a golf cart, run up, watch him throw his side or a batting practice, or if I had the opportunity, a minor-league game,” he said. “I was always impressed with his ability to throw strikes even at a young age, and his composure. He just always seemed very, very confident with himself.
“You know, you talk to a lot of young kids on the minor-league side, especially A-ball kids, they get a little intimidated. He never did.”
And he scarcely has since.
Ventura went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in the regular season. And even though he hasn’t figured in any decisions since, the Royals have won all three postseason games he’s started as he’s pitched 18 innings with a 3.50 ERA.
That includes a masterly start against the Angels (seven innings, five hits, one run).
It does not include a disastrous, ill-considered relief stint two days after starting the regular-season finale.
Yet the three-run homer Ventura surrendered to Brandon Moss in the American League Wild Card Game may have had what Eiland called a silver lining.
“He just tried to come in and do too much, and he learned a valuable lesson,” Eiland said, smiling and adding, “Redemption’s a beautiful thing, and he wanted to go out there (against the Angels) and redeem himself.
“He knew the mistake that he made. Instead of trusting 97-100 (mph), he was trying to throw 110, fell behind in the count, got out of his delivery and lost his command.”
Now, Yost, Eiland and Picollo all expect that Ventura will be in command of much more than just his pitches.
“His confidence is just staggering,” Yost said. “I mean, you walk in that clubhouse, and he looks you square in the eye with that glint that says, ‘I’m ready for this.’ ”
No matter what he else he might be compartmentalizing.
To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.