On the day before Yordano Ventura’s latest escapade — an injurious dud of a start in a 7-2 loss to the Phillies on Sunday — Royals manager Ned Yost sat inside his office at Citizens Bank Park and mulled the state of his starting rotation. As he evaluated the embattled unit, running through the names of his five-man rotation, he offered few noticeable signs of concern.
In the Royals’ first 80 games, the team’s starters had posted a 4.91 ERA, a number that was aided by Danny Duffy’s 8 2/3 -inning gem on Saturday night, but was still relegated to dead-last status in the American League. If the season had ended on Sunday morning, before an afternoon loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Royals still would have faced off against the Boston Red Sox in the American League Wild Card Game, the franchise’s third straight playoff appearance. But as the club hit the halfway mark of the season on Sunday, a familiar malady pushed to the forefront.
In a turbulent season marked by a rash of injuries and a crew of plucky fill-ins — a season defined by peaks and valleys, winning streaks and dead zones — a World Series title defense is being threatened by the scourge of mediocre starting pitching.
“I’m not panicking about any of our starters,” Yost said, tapping his fingers on the armrest of his office chair. “They’ve kept us in games.”
On Sunday, the statement was true in the most literal sense. When Ventura exited because of an ankle sprain in the third inning, he had surrendered four runs on two homers and the Royals still had requisite time to crawl out of the hole. But that is the charitable view. On the whole, the performance of Ventura sparked renewed questions about his reliability and shined a harsh light on the struggles of a rotation.
The Royals, 43-38, slipped into third place in the American League Central at the halfway point. Ventura allowed four runs in 2 2/3 innings, falling to 6-6 as his ERA jumped to 5.26. And here is the big picture: Entering the day, only 11 qualified starters in the American League had been worse than Ventura.
On Sunday, his day was wrecked by a three-run homer by Philadelphia’s Cameron Rupp in the bottom of the first and a towering solo shot from Cody Asche in the third. After two promising outings following a brawl in Baltimore, Ventura has allowed 11 runs across two starts since serving an eight-game suspension.
“He was in good rhythm and maybe the extra days that he was suspended kind of threw him off rhythm a little bit,” said Royals coach Pedro Grifol, who translated for Ventura. “But again, he’s going to continue to work to see if he can get back into that rhythm.”
The ankle sprain came while Ventura ran the bases in the top of the third inning. He had reached base on a single to right off Philadelphia starter Vince Velasquez, the second hit of his career. Moments later, Alex Gordon slapped a ground ball to second base, and Ventura attempted to avoid the tag from Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez. He rolled his ankle in the process, limping back to the dugout.
Ventura returned to the mound in the bottom of the third, only to allow his second homer of the day. Yost emerged from the dugout with assistant trainer Kyle Turner. Ventura’s day was over after just 36 pitches in 2 2/3 innings.
For the Royals, who boarded a flight to Toronto on Sunday evening, the series loss represented a missed opportunity against a rebuilding Phillies team. For half the season, the starting rotation has served as a restrictor plate on a team built to return to the postseason.
As the Royals’ rotation is constituted now, only Duffy will enter the second half with an ERA under 4.00. Among starting staffs in the American League, the Royals have allowed the most homers (81) and the third most walks (174).
The homers have been glaring, but pitching coach Dave Eiland says the Royals’ issues are more nuanced.
“I’ve always been taught: You can recover from solo home runs,” Eiland said this week. “You get into those three-run innings, that is what’s been hurting us. It isn’t the home runs, it’s the big innings.
“You look at our innings. We cruise along then, boom, we have a three-run inning. It’s killing us.”
The Royals believe Ventura’s issues are largely mechanical. His delivery has been inconsistent, which has led to an erratic release point. An increase in walks has crippled his performance.
The same goes for right-hander Chris Young, who signed a two-year contract in the offseason and has produced a 6.24 ERA. In a decision that signals the club’s unyielding faith in Young and a lack of suitable options, he will start Tuesday in Toronto after recording a 6.75 ERA during the month of June.
“I look at Ventura and I look at Chris Young and I do expect those guys to get better in the second half,” Yost said this weekend. “I think Ventura is making really good strides with his mechanics and staying within himself. I look for that to be more consistent in the second half and once (Young) gets into sync with his mechanics, I look for him to be better.”
Other than Duffy, who has been a revelation since his return from the bullpen, the Royals’ most dependable starters have been Edinson Volquez (4.90 ERA) and Ian Kennedy (4.04), who have mixed solid performances with occasional blowups. But club officials believe there is still upside in both pitchers. Kennedy is on pace to allow a career high in homers, a number that could regress during the second half. Volquez is well off his pace from last season, when he posted a 3.55 ERA in 200 1/3 innings. He is coming off a shutdown performance in St. Louis on Wednesday.
The hope underscores a larger belief among team officials. If the Royals’ rotation is going to improve in the second half, it will likely come largely from internal improvements. The club figures to be active in looking for rotation upgrades before the trade deadline, yet it remains unclear which pitchers will be available or whether Kansas City has the pieces to acquire one of the top arms on the market.
The Royals currently have two possible internal replacements in right-hander Kris Medlen and left-hander Mike Minor. But both have question marks. Medlen was roughed up in his last rehab start at Class AAA Omaha and was ineffective for a stretch after beginning the season in the rotation. Minor is coming off major shoulder surgery and is currently in a holding pattern after experiencing some shoulder fatigue during a rehab assignment.
Club officials have longed viewed Minor as a rotation possibility for 2017. But after signing him to a two-year deal during spring training, they viewed his potential contributions in 2016 as a bonus.
In an interview earlier this week, Royals general manager Dayton Moore said the progress of Medlen and Minor would not affect the club’s strategy before the trade deadline.
“It’s as much a product or a function of who’s available,” Moore said. “We have several internal options. We won’t hesitate to give them an opportunity.”
For now, the Royals will move forward, five games over .500 and just six games out of first place as the second half begins. On late Sunday afternoon, Ventura stood before his locker in Philadelphia, his right ankle wrapped in white athletic tape. He did not know if he would make his next start, he said. But he was hopeful.
At the moment, that’s all the Royals can be.