I hope Yordano Ventura always pitches like that. I hope he always has the arm to blow 98 mph fastballs by opposing sluggers and the moxie to freeze them with his straight changeup instead. I hope his hard, biting curve can always find the zone when he needs a strike, and can dip beneath it when he needs to miss a bat.
The beginning of a promising career is a beautiful thing. Right now, I imagine many Royals fans don't care too much that they lost the game. They believe they've seen the future, and even though it would be difficult for for Ventura to do a better job than he did tonight, they're certain he'll improve. They think he'll be more efficient. They think he'll go deeper into games.
But transcendence is fragile. Sometimes, when you think you're seeing the future, it turns out to only be the present. In tonight's game, we were treated to high-octane appearances out of the bullpen by two pitchers -- Wade Davis and Jake McGee -- who in an only slightly different parallel universe are currently heading up a strong Rays rotation. I hope the next time we see him, Yordano Ventura shuts out the Rays once more. I hope he strikes out two batters an inning, and I hope he never once pitches an inning of relief, except on short rest in extras of game seven of the World Series. Peace be with you, KC.
Of course, the present for the Rays isn't all bad, either. And while he allowed more baserunners than Ventura did, Chris Archer was far more efficient, and was able to outlast him while preserving the scoreless game. Archer allowed no runs while throwing seven innings. He gave up six hits and walked two batters while striking out four. Perhaps more exciting, he threw seven changeups according to the MLBAAM algorithm (via Brooks Baseball), and more by my rough count. Even better, they weren't throw-away pitches that he timidly fluttered off the outside edge to lefties; they served a purpose, and Archer wasn't shy. When he wanted to, he brought them inside (example: Aoki in the sixth inning). That's pitching.
The first bit of excitement (if you only care about offense and don’t count watching two great young pitchers work their opponents over as exciting) came in the bottom of the third. With one out, Alcides Escobar lined a hanging slider up the middle for a single. Then, with Jarrod Dyson batting, Escobar got a great jump from first and would have stolen second standing up had Dyson not bunted foul. The plate appearance ended with a groundball to short that Yunel Escobar fielded and underhanded to Ben Zobrist. Zobrist stepped on the bag, but couldn’t manage the transfer, and the ball fell to the ground.
The umpire called the runner safe, claiming that Zobrist never made the catch. Ben was adamant that he had lost it on the transfer, and Joe Maddon came out and placed a challenge. In slow motion replays, it seemed clear to me that the result would be an out, but after a short time on the headsets, the umpiring crew announced that the central office said "call confirmed." I didn't understand how it could be confirmed, but as the broadcast explained later in the game, the emphasis for that call has changed this year. Infielders must now show control with the throwing hand to be credited with the catch in that situation.
Confirmed or upheld, that put runners on first and second with one out. Norichi Aoki showed bunt, and to my eyes bunted over a low slider, but the ump’s verdict was that he pulled the bat back in time. On his second try, Aoki put down as good a bunt as you’ll ever see, deadening the ball inches from the third-base line. Longoria, who knew the bunt was coming, still couldn’t field it quickly enough to get Aoki at first, so the bases were loaded for Eric Hosmer. Fortunately for the Rays, Hosmer grounded to shortstop to give the Rays’ infield duo another chance. Zobrist bounced his throw, but Loney scooped it to end the inning.
It appeared, going into the bottom of the sixth, like Archer – who had been the more efficient of the two – would outlast Ventura. Ventura's day was over, after he had polished off the top of the inning, while Archer was beginning his frame at only 57 pitches. It nearly ended badly, though. Archer started off well, striking out Aoki, who whiffed on an inside fastball one pitch after taking an inside changeup for a strike. Against Hosmer, though, Archer’s landing foot slipped, sending him sprawling on the mound. That seemed to rattle him a bit, and his next several pitches missed badly.
He pulled it back together against Salvador Perez, but sometimes good hitters hit well. Perez reached out over the plate and flipped a fastball that was low and on the outer edge the other way into right field. Billy Butler, who had grounded into a double play to end the inning the last time Archer was in danger, also displayed his talent. After fouling off a high and away fastball, he was all over a pitch low and in, pulling it into left field to load the bases for only one out.
Against Alex Gordon, Archer threw one of his big-running frontdoor two-seam fastballs, but it leaked out over the plate a little more than he probably intended. Gordon swung hard, and hit one of the highest infield popups I may have ever seen. It was in the air for a good five seconds, possibly more. Archer was probably a bit lucky that Gordon didn’t get better bat to ball, but he was definitely lucky on the next play. Danny Valencia hit the ball hard, but right at Longoria. And while Longo couldn’t control it cleanly, he kept his body in front of the grounder, knocked it down with his chest, and calmly took the out at second base.
After the two bullpens traded zeroes for a bit, Ned Yost did the right thing by calling for his closer and best reliever, Greg Holland, in the top of the ninth of a tied game. Wil Myers lead off the inning, and you can bet he was happy to not be facing Ventura (the young righty had pretty much dominated Myers all game). Myers grounded a pitch toward the left side of the infield, but there was a slight bit of confusion as both Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar tried to make the play. Moustakas cut in front and executed the scoop, but he may have been distracted by the near-collision, and he wasn't able to get the ball out of his glove to make a throw. Holland put away both Longoria and Zobrist, but while facing James Loney yanked a wild pitch that allowed Myers to advance to second. That bout of wildness would cost him. Loney pulled his 3-2 pitch, and while it wasn't hit hard, Loney's grounder was too far to the of Danny Valencia for him to make a play at second base, and Myers scampered home from second, running on Aoki's weak right-field arm.
Grant Balfour would not give up the lead.
Some other notes.
- Honest question for the assembled luminaries. In the eighth inning, with two outs, two men on, and Alex Gordon up to bat, why did Joe Maddon remove Jake McGee and replace him with Joel Peralta? Peralta walked Gordon to load the bases, but then worked over Danny Valencia to escape the jam.
- There was a play in the second inning where Matt Joyce sliced a Ventura fastball the other way but a little bit foul. It came down right before the wall in left field, and Alex Gordon made the catch, crashed in the wall, and appeared to be in a bit of pain limping away. The Sun Sports broadcast showed Ventura's reaction during the play, that started as tentative fist-raising, then worry over whether or not Gordon made the catch, then (with the raised fists slowly coming down) genuine concern over Gordon's health. It was intensely likeable.
- The Royals loaded the bases three times tonight, and were never able to capitalize. See? It's not just us.
- Salvador Perez is an unreasonably big man. It's especially apparent when he's "crouching" behind the batter but still nearly looming over him. It's intimidating. I'm going to try to start up a "Catcher WWF" with Perez and Matt Wieters as headliners. I'm looking for investors. You can look up my email and send money via paypal.
- Grant Balfour's command was superb today.