Royals drop pitchers’ duel
By Andy McCullough
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The temporary second baseman sprawled across the dirt. Danny Valencia, a backup third baseman filling in on emergency duty, dived in vain to snag a ground-ball single that cost the Royals in a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay on Tuesday.
The blame for the evening does not belong with Valencia, filling in for Omar Infante, who is resting a sprained jaw after being hit with a pitch Monday night. The Royals loaded the bases on three separate occasions, and came away empty each time. They wasted an outstanding season debut by 22-year-old Yordano Ventura, who was locked in a pitchers’ duel with the Rays’ Chris Archer.
And responsibility for the winning run lies more with third baseman Mike Moustakas and closer Greg Holland.
Holland entered with a scoreless deadlock in the ninth. He induced a ground ball off the bat of former Royals prospect Wil Myers. Moustakas swooped in front of shortstop Alcides Escobar and grabbed the ball, but Moustakas fumbled the transfer and could not make a throw, and Myers was safe.
Myers took second when Holland threw a slider in the dirt for a wild pitch. James Loney then threaded the single that scored Myers and dropped the Royals to 3-4.
It was a frightful ending to a night that began with such promise.
In his first start of the season, Ventura spun six scoreless innings, and held the Rays to two hits. He utilized his fastball — the trademark weapon that touches triple digits — along with his change-up and curveball for six strikeouts.
A rainout postponed Ventura’s scheduled debut in the season’s third game, and the Royals skipped his turn in the rotation. Midway through Saturday’s game against Chicago, Ventura tossed a bullpen session and prepared for his debut.
Inside the clubhouse, hours before the game, Ventura stationed his chair toward his locker and sat down. He strapped on a pair of headphones that encased his ears. On occasion, he glanced back at a mostly empty room.
Outside in the early April chill, manager Ned Yost previewed the evening’s main attraction. Ventura made three starts in 2013, and his performance hinted as his potential. Yost kept his tone measured.
“They’re going to see a young man that throws three pitches,” Yost said. “Hopefully for strikes.”
The first pitch of his season departed Ventura’s hand at 7:10 p.m. The fastball zipped at 96 mph into catcher Salvador Perez’s glove. Home-plate umpire Quinn Wolcott ruled it a ball, below the knees of leadoff hitter David DeJesus, who slapped a single three pitches later.
In this moment, Yost’s foreshadowing earlier in the day proved prescient.
“What impresses me the most is for a real young guy, he doesn’t let the game speed up on him,” Yost said. “He’s got great composure.”
Ventura was undeterred in the face of early adversity. He dusted off Myers with an 89-mph change-up and fanned Ben Zobrist with a 98-mph fastball. He locked into a rhythm from there. The third inning lasted only seven pitches.
In the fourth, Zobrist clubbed a one-out double out of Nori Aoki’s reach in right field. The response from Ventura was decisive. He froze Evan Longoria with an 85-mph curveball for a strikeout. Valencia flashed credible range as he chased down an inning-ending pop-up into shallow right.
Ventura’s velocity will always impress casual observers. To Royals officials, the potential with his other pitches is still vast. Ventura opted for four consecutive curveballs to begin his third encounter with Myers, with two outs in the sixth. With the count full, Ventura flicked another change-up that left Myers motionless.
It was his final pitch of the evening, the last one in a six-inning hint of what could come this season. It was also the last encouraging moment on a night that ended in angst.