On September 17th, 2013, the Kansas City Royals hosted the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium in a key late-season AL Central contest. Coming off a 72-win season in 2012, and nine straight losing seasons since an 83-79 mark in 2003, the Royals came into the game against the Indians 79-71. The Royals were eight games behind the Central division-leading Detroit Tigers, and in the thick of the AL Wild Card race along with the Tampa Bay Rays (82-67), Baltimore Orioles (79-70), New York Yankees (79-71), Texas Rangers (81-68), and the Indians, who at 81-69 had a two-game advantage over Kansas City. The Royals had already started off the series against the Indians well the previous night, as James Shields, the Royals’ prime off-season acquisition and newly minted “ace,” went 6 innings and struck out 10 in a 7-1 victory.
With a sweep, the Royals would be able to tie the Indians in the division and Wild Card race. However, the Royals would not be of the services of Danny Duffy, who was supposed to be next in the rotation in game two of the three-game series at the K, as he was dealing with inflammation in his pitching elbow that would sit him out for a second straight start.
Instead of going with an internal option in the Royals pitching staff, General Manager Dayton Moore decided to call up the 22-year-old Yordano Ventura from Omaha, the 35th best prospect in baseball that season, according to MLB Pipeline. Ventura had split the season in Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha, posting a 2.34 ERA in 11 starts with the Naturals, and a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts and 15 appearances with the Storm Chasers that season. However, despite his stellar Minor League campaign, the debut had a heightened sense of pressure, especially since the Royals were trying to vie for their first playoff appearance in 28 years.
“We all thought about just doing a bullpen day (to replace Duffy),” manager Ned Yost said, “but the intrigue … let’s see what we’ve got. It’s kind of a tough spot to put Ventura in, but he’s got good-enough stuff.“Royals call up Yordano Ventura to start Tuesday for injured Danny Duffy” by Bob Dutton; Kansas City Star, September 16th, 2013.
Ventura’s debut had been long-awaited by Royals fans, whom many viewed as the best Royals pitching prospect since Zack Grienke. Despite a modest 6-foot, 180-ish pound frame, the 22-year-old had wowed fans in the minors with his 100-mph velocity, and flamboyant demeanor that reminded some of a young Pedro Martinez. Lee Warren of Minor League Ball echoed a lot of promising sentiment in regard to Ventura’s debut in a September 17th, 2013 piece published before the game.
Royals fans will get to see Ventura’s frequent Twitter hashtag #LetsThrowFire come to life at Kauffman Stadium. Omaha manager Mike Jirschele says Ventura has a better fastball than Zack Greinke. He certainly throws harder than Greinke, hitting 102 on the radar gun in a Storm Chasers uniform on numerous occasions. Ventura’s fastball doesn’t move as much as Greinke’s, but it does have tremendous pop at the end.“What to watch for in Yordano Ventura’s MLB debut” by Lee Warren; Minor League Ball
Ventura took the mound at Kauffman Stadium obviously nervous in his first Major League start. Not only was Ventura pitching against a team that they were competing with for a playoff spot, but he was also facing Corey Kluber, who was coming off a victory against the White Sox in his previous start, and entered the game with a 9-5 record and 3.55 ERA. Kluber would go onto win the AL Cy Young award the following season.
Ventura displayed his nervousness by walking Cleveland leadoff hitter Michael Bourn on four straight pitches. However, Ventura got the next batter, Nick Swisher, to hit into a 6-4-3 double play, which eased the young rookie’s nerves. Ventura was able to get three-hole hitter Jason Kipnis to strike out on four pitches, which not only got Ventura out of his first Major League inning, but also gave him his first Major League strikeout.
Eric Hosmer helped give Ventura a lead to work with in the bottom of the first, as Hosmer hit a double off Kluber to left field which brought in second baseman Emilio Bonifacio, who had walked in the previous at bat. From there, Ventura began to demonstrate the dazzling effectiveness he would be known for in Kansas City from 2014-2016.
In the second, Ventura retired the Indians in order, which included Michael Brantley grounding into a 1-6-3 double play after Ventura allowed a leadoff walk to Carlos Santana. In the third, Ventura gave up his first Major League hit, which was earned by nine-hole hitter and catcher Yan Gomes, but the hit did no damage, as Ventura proceeded to get Bourn to ground out to first baseman Hosmer on the next at-bat to end the inning. The Royals gave Ventura a little more run support in the bottom of the third, as a Bonifacio single and two straight walks to Hosmer and Billy Butler loaded the bases with one out. Salvador Perez drove in Bonifacio with a sacrifice fly to left, and Mike Moustakas hit a deep line drive double to left-center field to bring in Hosmer from second. Going into the 4th, Ventura had a 3-0 cushion in his debut.
The 4th and 5th innings moved with ease for the Dominican-born rookie, as he only faced eight batters, and only allowed two base runners to get on, which came by error (Ventura couldn’t make the catch covering first) and a single to right (which was hit by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera). In the sixth however, Ventura hit his first real trouble as a Major League pitcher. Even though he got Bourn to pop up to shortstop, he allowed a single to Swisher, and then a two-out single to Santana after striking out Kipnis previously for the second out. Then on a 3-2 count, Brantley hit a single to right field, and Royals right fielder David Lough couldn’t throw out Swisher at home, which gave the Indians their first run of the game. After the Brantley RBI, manager Ned Yost pulled Ventura in favor of left-hander Will Smith to finish the inning.
Ventura threw 86 pitches, and allowed one run on five hits and two walks. He faced 23 batters, and struck out three in the 5.2 innings of work.
Ventura’s hardest pitch velocity-wise in his career came in his debut, as he threw a fastball that measured 102.86 MPH according to Pitch F/X data, which came in the third-inning against Yan Gomes.
The Royals bullpen could not preserve Ventura’s lead, as Kelvin Herrera allowed the Indians to tie the game in the 7th inning, and Wade Davis, not quite yet his 2014-2016 self, gave up the lead after a double to Cabrera in the 8th. The Royals lost the game 5-3, with the Indians’ final run of the game coming by the way of a home run by Bourn off of Luke Hochevar, who had rejuvenated his career by moving to the bullpen in 2013.
Ventura proceeded to make two more starts in 2013 and finished with a 3.52 ERA in 15.1 innings of work. Ventura would end up pitching three more full seasons with the Royals before a car accident in January of 2017 the Dominican Republic ended his life at the age of 25. In his career, he pitched 547.2 innings, struck out 470 batters, and finished with a 38-31 record and 3.89 ERA over 94 career appearances, 93 of them starts. In his postseason career, he made 10 appearances and pitched 46.1 innings, posting a 1-2 record and 4.66 ERA during the Royals’ 2014 and 2015 playoff runs. His best series came in the 2014 World Series against the San Francisco Giants, as he posted a 1.46 ERA in 12.1 IP, which included a Game 6 victory that forced a decisive Game 7 at Kauffman Stadium.
Ventura’s life was cut too short, and even to this day, Royals fans wonder what Ventura would have turned into as a Royal, as he would have turned 29-years-old on June 3rd. While he didn’t get the win, Ventura’s September of 2013 debut gave Royals fans a brief glimpse of what “Ace” Ventura would be as a Royal, and for the most part, Ventura lived up to expectations in his three full seasons in Kansas City.
It’s too bad Royals fans, and baseball fans in general, were not able to see more of him.