Royals people will tell you that right-hander Yordano Ventura is a diligent worker, one of the team's most regimented pitchers. He is engaged between starts, watches film, works on pitches, looks and acts the part.
The Ventura who received a seven-game suspension last April for triggering a series of on-field incidents ... that guy, it seemed, had disappeared. The bigger issue of late was Ventura's performance, the 4.82 ERA that he carried into Tuesday night's start -- and swelled to 5.32 during a game in which he drilled Manny Machado and triggered an ugly brawl during a 9-1 loss to the Orioles at Camden Yards.
We can debate conduct and intent, but Ventura's performance, at least in the big picture, is still the issue. The Royals need him to be their ace, needed him to stop their five-game losing streak Tuesday night. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, all of the old questions about Ventura emerged, questions for which the Royals have no answers.
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Machado was not blameless; he can be on the touchy side himself. The Royals' plan was to pitch him inside, then throw breaking balls down and away. Machado seemed to take offense on balls that were in, but did not hit him, in his second at-bat. He then ripped a drive to left that he thought was a homer, admired it, only to see the ball get knocked down by the wind and caught.
An exchange of words between Machado and Ventura followed, though it's not clear who started yapping first. The entire Royals' dugout reacted, according to sources, ticked off both by Machado's body language and verbal response. Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he gave Machado a heads-up in the dugout, telling him to expect trouble in his next at-bat. The brawl was that predictable, that inevitable. And for Ventura, that sad.
The kid is 25 now. This is his third full season. The Royals have tried coddling him, supporting him, protecting him. Oh, they demoted him when he was struggling last July, but his minor-league stint did not even last a day after lefty Jason Vargas went on the DL.
Former reliever LaTroy Hawkins tweeted Tuesday night that "someone needs to have a chat" with Ventura. The truth is that the Royals indeed have talked to him. Over and over again. Ventura looks great in his side sessions, great warming up before games. And then, at times on the mound, he just snaps.
Watching Ventura in the early innings Tuesday night -- he was down 4-0 after 12 pitches -- I thought, "What the heck is going on?" Ventura was finishing pitches by kicking his leg high in an exaggerated flourish. I had not seen him recently, did not know whether it was a new habit of his. But I was told later, the Royals do not want him to finish that way, and he does not finish that way when working on the side. Again: At times, on the mound, he just becomes a different guy.
So what's next? Jeff Passan of Yahoo reported Wednesday that the Royals have explored trading Ventura. I had heard the same a few weeks back, but when I asked someone with the Royals about it then, he pointed out that the rotation already was dangerously thin. Nothing has changed. The Royals essentially have no one at Triple A to replace Ventura, and no one in their major-league rotation with his upside.
Let's not forget, Ventura is the guy who was brilliant in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series just two days after the loss of his friend, Oscar Taveras. He's also the guy the Royals chose over Johnny Cueto to start Game 1 of the 2015 Division Series, and who even this season has looked quite good at times, including in a victory over the Orioles in Kansas City on April 24.
Some noted that catcher Sal Perez failed to stop Machado from charging the mound on Tuesday night, as if he wanted Ventura to be taught a lesson. The Royals surely are frustrated with Ventura, not even manager Ned Yost denies that. But Perez didn't want his pitcher to get pummeled, sources said. He was just caught off-guard, stunned that this was all happening again.
The immediate fallout will be suspensions for both Machado and Ventura, but for the Royals the longer view is even more troubling. They built their 2016 team expecting Ventura to play a major role, perhaps even be their No. 1 starter. Do they try tough love next? Send him to Triple A? Get more serious about trading him?
Ventura is proud. He wants to be good. But at some point, he needs to be accountable. If he cannot learn to channel his frustration, his enormous talent will go to waste. His career is at a crossroads now. The Royals need to see the guy who is so disciplined between starts exert the same control on the mound.