At his most conscious level Tuesday night, Royals rookie pitcher Yordano Ventura was playing for this team and this city.
Deeper inside, though, he was channeling his late friend Oscar Taveras and the grief-convulsed Dominican Republic where they grew up.
That’s why before the win-or-done game six of the World Series at Kauffman Stadium, a game in which the Royals smashed San Francisco 10-0 to force game seven tonight, Ventura took to Twitter to pay homage to Taveras, the shimmering future of the Cardinals who died in a car accident on Sunday.
“All for you my brother. Wherever you are, I will always remember you, bro,” Ventura wrote, roughly translated from Spanish. “You do not know the pain you left on my (heart).”
That’s why as Ventura took the mound for the most meaningful game of his life, he wore a cap on which he’d prominently scrawled “RIP O.T. #18” and swaddled in a glove and shoes also bearing tributes to Taveras.
And whether it was because of or despite his bubbling emotions for Taveras, that explained why Ventura could walk into a postgame news conference with a Dominican flag.
It signified the night he at once hoisted a team on his shoulders and offered at least some morsel of consolation to a nation.
But that wasn’t really how it was seen by Ventura, who became just the second rookie to throw seven or more scoreless innings in a World Series game since 1948 and just the seventh rookie to win an elimination World Series game.
Afterward, teammate and fellow Dominican Francisco Peña approached Ventura to tell him what a great job he did as he surrendered just three hits in seven innings.
“No, I didn’t do nothing,” Peña recalled him saying. “It was God and (Taveras) that were helping me on the mound.”
However it happened, it was another night of precocious magic from Ventura, who has been the starter four of the last five times a Royals pitcher has gone seven innings or longer.
It made for quite a contrast to counterpart Jake Peavy, the former Cy Young Award winner who was pelted for seven runs before being knocked out in the second inning.
Ventura had seemed off-kilter before the game started, throwing several pitches into the dirt in warmups.
But afterward, through translator Christian Colon, he said he had done that on purpose to trick the Giants.
Still, he wobbled some in pitch counts in the first, and he walked the bases loaded in the third before inducing an inning-ending double-play grounder.
The exclamation point of his night might have been the ball hit back at him in the sixth. Ventura kicked with some gusto as he caught it and threw to Eric Hosmer.
Really, though, the whole night was one thunderclap for Ventura.
“Awesome,” manager Ned Yost said. “I mean, I really don’t know what more to say. I mean, you’ve got a 23-year-old kid pitching the biggest game that this stadium has seen in 29 years with our backs against the wall.
“And he goes out there in complete command of his emotions …
“I mean, we’ve talking all along about how special he is, but … you can’t be on a bigger stage than he was on tonight.”
And then some.
Wrenching images of Taveras’ funeral on Tuesday in the wake of his death tell you all you need to know about the meaning of the game in the Dominican.
And Ventura’s cap told you something about the meaning of his relationship with Taveras, whom Ventura had approached and befriended in 2011 in Class A ball simply because they were countrymen.
As recently as June, he took a home-cooked Dominican meal to Taveras when the Cardinals were in town.
“The Dominican players have a bond that’s very evident,” Royals’ assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “With a lot of the kids from the Dominican, there’s a sense of urgency for them to succeed that doesn’t necessarily exist in the American player.”
Ventura has demonstrated his own hunger with a certain fury since the Royals signed him as a non-drafted free agent in 2008 out of Samaná, Dominican Republic.
“You know our country’s not that big, and we live, we breathe, we eat — everything we do is baseball,” Peña said.
The area in which Ventura grew up was known for its mountains, beaches, fishing, annual migration of North Atlantic humpback whales, a handful of other big-leaguers and, now, Ventura.
He was scrawny then, perhaps 120 pounds, when the Royals signed him for $28,000. He’d dropped out of high school at 14 to help support his single mother by working construction and driving trucks.
But this was a different sort of opportunity, borne out of a hunger perhaps as literal as figurative.
“They’re pitching or playing every night, especially in the minor leagues, to get a chance to stay here and have their families benefit from having success. And a little success in this game brings a lot of money,” Picollo said. “So I think because of that there is a little more, I don’t know if pressure’s the right word, but sense of urgency. ‘I have to do well if I’m going to help my family here.’ And I think when somebody’s forced into that situation as a young adult, they take it on even more.”
It wasn’t always an upward trajectory. He hit bumps in the minors.
“You just kind of hope they see the light sooner rather than later,” Picollo said. “And he did.”
And he provided more light than anyone could have asked for when it was needed most Tuesday, when he helped people forget some and remember at the same time.
“He wanted to represent (Taveras’) name,” Peña said, “by doing that.”