Kansas City, Mo. A spectacular gift from the future arrived Tuesday to help the Royals in the present and that hasn’t happened on a relevant September night in an awfully long time at Kauffman Stadium.
No wonder the crowd roared so loudly, making almost as much noise as Yordano Ventura’s fastball crashing into Salvador Perez’s catcher’s mitt.
Hitting 102 mph on the Royals’ amped radar gun, Ventura, 22, won over 21,685 in attendance. He lasted two outs into the sixth inning, allowed five hits and one run, walked two and struck out three. As he walked off the mound with a two-run lead in a game the Royals would lose to the Cleveland Indians, 5-3, Ventura removed his cap and waved it to the crowd, acknowledging a standing ovation nobody in the house will forget any time soon.
He revealed afterward that it was Perez who told him on their final conversation on the mound as the ball was being taken from him to make sure to doff his chapeau.
Ventura, a 5-foot-11 right-hander from the Dominican Republic walked the first batter he faced on four pitches, the last sign of nerves from him all evening.
“Everyone knows I was nervous,” Ventura said through interpreting teammate Bruce Chen. “That’s why I couldn’t even throw a strike. Thank God, I was able to make an adjustment and get the next guy out.”
With a double-play ball and a strikeout, he was out of the inning and on his way to a terrific performance that didn’t hold up in the Royals’ 5-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians.
On the same night Royals right-handed reliever Kelvin Herrera approached similar mph readings on the scoreboard, it wasn’t difficult to tell which pitcher has a higher career ceiling. Herrera’s a maximum-effort hurler who has a sometimes-flailing delivery. As a result, he can tend to fall behind hitters and, to keep from walking them, catches too much of the strike zone.
In contrast, Ventura has a breezy motion, looks almost as if he’s warming up before the inning and then, wham, 98 mph at the armpit on the outside corner.
The ease of his delivery calls to mind Yankees right-hander Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in the game’s history. But Ventura is a starting pitcher and will get another shot when his turn comes up in the rotation, Royals manager Ned Yost said after the loss.
Numbers crunchers are fond of pointing out that sub-6-footers break down and therefore should all be relief pitchers. Good thing for the Expos nobody made that determination with Pedro Martinez. Ditto for the Yankees and Whitey Ford, the Kansas University football program and Todd Reesing. Tim Lincecum won back-to-back Cy Young Awards and finished in the top 10 the next two seasons, before fading the past couple of years. Greg Maddux, the finest starting pitcher of his era, is one inch taller than Ventura.
Shorter pitchers such as Maddux and Martinez tend to have smaller hands, an advantage for developing a reliable changeup. Fingers too long, Maddux once explained to me, get in the way of the pitch rolling off properly. That could have been a factor in Doc Gooden’s inability to master the pitch.
No pitch puts less stress on an arm than a changeup and Ventura already appears to have a good one to go with poise that belies his youth.
The Royals’ normally reliable bullpen couldn’t hold the two-run lead it was given by “Ace” Ventura. When it vanished with Herrera on the mound, the pitch Nick Swisher lofted for a game-tying sacrifice fly in the seventh inning was booed. The angry disappointment felt more a case of support for a phenom cheated of a victory he deserved than inspired by the harmful impact on a pennant race getting away from the Royals. By night’s end, the future looked brighter than the present.
Ventura said he did not shake off Perez, 23, all night. It has the makings of a battery that will keep its juice for many years to come, years packed with promise as general manager Dayton Moore’s pitching-first philosophy pays dividends.