The mitt popped and heads turned.
A windup, a throw.
And twenty thousand turn to look at the scoreboard. 98 mph. 99 mph. 101 mph.
Nervous energy filled the stands. Chatter included reminders that it was Yordano Ventura‘s major league debut. Here, of all places, in the thick of the wild card race, the Royals chose to introduce one of their best prospects to big league baseball. A must-win game against a division rival.
Maybe it was lunacy. Maybe it was brilliance. Either way, it was necessary. Danny Duffy is hurt. Wade Davis is a reliever now. And who would have been asking to see Luis Mendoza in this situation? No, the best choice was Ventura.
He began his career with a clear show of nerves. A lifetime of working towards this goal, finally realized. From a scrawny 17-year-old who barely reached 90 on the radar gun when he signed a contract to to a 22-year-old dynamo pitching one of the biggest games in recent franchise history.
Understandably, he seemed to be revved up. He walked the first batter, Michael Bourn, on four pitches.
The cranks in the seats muttered “Well here we go again.” Years of promises about developing pitching have jaded this group, and Ventura is just the second pitching prospect to start a game who was drafted or signed as an amateur by Dayton Moore (that is, if you cooperate with the narrative that he didn’t draft anyone after taking over in 2006).
He recovered. The next batter hit into a double play, a picture perfect 6-4-3 and he dispatched Jason Kipnis for his first big league strikeout, secured by a sharp curveball for a whiff. He continued to pitch well, mixing his fastball, curve, and changeup and had the Indians scoreless through five innings.
Returning for a sixth inning, Bourn couldn’t make good contact on a fastball and lofted the ball to short for an out. After a single, Kipnis again struck out, this time without offering at a fastball. Ventura got the slugging Carlos Santana to hit a week fly to right, but David Lough came in on it late and the ball tumbled to the ground, a hit that let Nick Swisher get to third. It was the first time a runner advanced beyond first base and the first time he’d face a batter while two runners were aboard.
He gave up another hit and Cleveland’s first run and made his exit. The crowd recognized his effort with a standing ovation. He raised his cap in appreciation and left the game to his bullpen.
Will Smith came in and walked the only batter he faced. Normally that’s a small bump, a nuisance.
Tonight, it was an omen.
A boisterous crowd cheered as Louis Coleman finished the inning with a strikeout, and clearly, the experience was so intense that the six pitches he threw taxed him and he couldn’t return for the seventh inning. Kelvin Herrera pitched the seventh instead. He hasn’t been as strong as last season, but he’s been good most of the second half. No matter. On this night, he struck out Lonnie Chisenhall but then hit Yan Gomes with a pitch. Bourn tripled two pitches later then scored on a sacrifice fly and the lead was lost. The crowd, teased by the lead and with past Herrera failures in mind, booed lustily.
In the next inning, Wade Davis committed a baseball sin and walked the first batter. That turned into a run when the defense again failed the Royals. What had been strengths all season – the bullpen and defense – weren’t there tonight. Eric Hosmer bobbled a ball that could have started a double play, but could only get the out at first base and pinch runner Drew Stubbs went to second.
The tie was no more. The Royals were losing. Fans filled the aisles while heading for the concourse. Grumblings about traffic.
Ventura’s performance was wasted.
Serenaded by Wilbert Harrison, fans filed out, faces empty of delight, deflated.