As big assignment approaches, Ventura cool
Royals' 22-year-old righty has impressed en route to earning start against Tigers
DETROIT -- Things threatened to get a bit stormy in Yordano Ventura's big league debut last year, but there was a moment the skies cleared and everything changed.
Carlos Santana walked to open the Indians' second inning. The count on Michael Brantley went to 2-2 as Ventura threw two pitches into the dirt. After a 100-mph fastball was fouled off, Brantley hit a sharp chopper back to the kid pitcher.
It was the perfect recipe for a raw, tense rookie to whirl toward second base and heave the ball into center field. That was not Ventura, as pitching coach Dave Eiland remembered so well.
"He turned, and no panic -- perfect peg to second, turned two and the next guy flied out," Eiland said. "He's a special kid."
On that debut night, Sept. 17 at Kauffman Stadium, Ventura stepped right into the middle of the Indians-Royals scrap over an American League Wild Card berth and coolly pitched 5 2/3 innings, giving up only one run. The Royals lost, 5-3, through no fault of his.
Ventura did well enough last September and in this Spring Training to win the last open spot in Kansas City's rotation. He'll start the season's third game on Thursday afternoon at Detroit.
"Detroit is a very good team, and to appear in the opening series is very exciting," Ventura said.
A smiling 22-year-old, Ventura might be excited, but he's certainly not frazzled by the assignment.
"He has great mound presence," Eiland said. "There's no panic in him. If there is, he hides it well."
Ventura has a simple explanation for his calm demeanor.
"Every time, I'm getting more comfortable and not trying to do too much," he said.
Such as throwing a 100-mph fastball with every pitch. That's Ventura's great natural ability, but he's learned that one doesn't survive in the Major Leagues simply by throwing white heat.
"You still have to pitch," manager Ned Yost said. "Does it help you? Yeah, absolutely. But it doesn't help you if you can't get your secondary pitches over for strikes. Then they just spit on everything and gear up for the fastball and wait for it, take everything else."
Last year, in his debut, Ventura threw one pitch that was clocked at 102.8 mph, the fastest recorded by a starting pitcher all last season.
Ventura, though, has learned to throw his breaking ball and changeup for strikes, and he understands that such variety will be the spice of his baseball life.
"I try to confuse the hitters," he said. "I throw changeups, fastballs, breaking balls. Sometimes inside, outside, up, down."
"For a young player," Yost said, "he's very quick to make adjustments, which is very impressive. He retains, he studies and he adjusts."
Nothing like a changeup at 83 mph followed by gas at 101, or vice versa.
All of this speed grew from the serenity of Samana, a Dominican Republic bayside town with a population of about 15,000.
"I played at home, I liked baseball when I was a young guy, about 8 years old," Ventura said.
Before the Royals signed Ventura in 2008 at age 17, he was a shortstop as well as a pitcher.
"I played a lot of ball at home, and my arm got stronger because I'd throw, throw, throw," he said. "When I signed, I threw 91 [mph] or 89. The next year, I could throw 95. Then I got up to 99."
And -- thanks partially to his present weight of 192 pounds -- 102 mph.
Ventura is working on improving his English and is doing quite well -- "I practice every day," he said -- with help from his Dominican buddy Kelvin Herrera and other Latin American teammates such as Bruce Chen.
There'll be a further touch of home for Ventura this summer, when his mother, Marisol, joins him in Kansas City.
"She is a very, very good cook. Rice, beans and chicken. It's the best," he said.
Sometimes called "Yo," Ventura's home life also includes movies, notably "The Fast and the Furious" series in addition to Spanish-language films, and PlayStation 3 baseball and basketball video games.
Most of Ventura's life, though, centers on the pitching mound, and he finds himself dependent on the guidance of catcher Salvador Perez.
"Salvy calls a lot of good pitches, he's more veteran than me," Ventura said.
Wiser, perhaps, and older. Perez, remember, is all of 23.
"He throws hard. The command he has is pretty good for a kid that throws the ball that hard," the catcher said. "He's got a little changeup, a curveball and a cutter, but he doesn't throw the cutter too often."
What keeps Ventura so calm in a storm?
Perez's deep laugh rumbled.
"Because he knows he can get an out," he said.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.