SAN FRANCISCO — They fell in the love with the fastball. With Yordano Ventura, it has always been all about that fastball. He was 17 years old when he showed up at the Royals' Dominican Republic Academy as an impossibly skinny kid, only 120 pounds; not exactly "can't miss" with that kind of slight frame. He didn't have the body, or the command, or the assortment of pitches. But he did have the one pitch: a fastball that came so easy out of his right hand, one that convinced the Royals to give the boy from Samana $28,000 to sign. It was a pitch that would become a key part of the Royals' baseball revival.
Now it is six years later, and a great baseball dream in Kansas City rests on the narrow shoulders of the baby-faced righthander who, at 23, may be the hardest throwing starting pitcher ever. The World Series is headed back to Kansas City with the Giants up 3-2 in the series, and Game 6 will come down to Ventura and his fastball. For the first time since their Wild-Card Game against the Athletics four weeks ago, the improbable game that started this crazy October ride, the Royals are facing elimination.
"We've got to walk the tightrope now without a net," said Royals manager Ned Yost after Game 5, "but our guys aren't afraid of walking the tightrope without a net. We fall off and we're dead. But we win Tuesday, nobody's got a net. It's going to be winner take all. So we think it's going to be fun. We're looking forward to getting back to our home crowd, where it's going to be absolutely wild and crazy."
"When you're able to come back from four runs down with Jon Lester on the mound, you're a pretty resilient club," Eric Hosmer said. "We've had our backs against the wall for a while now, so we're used to it. Two more wins, and we finish what we set out to do."
Two more wins, and the Royals go from being a great October baseball story to the kind of sports story they make movies about. They'll need their bats to come alive back home in Kauffman Stadium. The Royals scored seven runs in the three games in San Francisco and hit .218, with three extra-base hits over the last two games. They've been outscored 15-0 since the third inning of Game 4. They'll need Alex Gordon, who is now 2-for-27 with 10 strikeouts since Game 2 of the ALCS, to get going. They'll need Billy Butler, who had just one at-bat over three games in San Francisco, to deliver some big hits.
"I know what my abilities are," a clearly frustrated Butler said after Game 5. "You feel like you can make a difference each day when you come to the park, but the manager makes the lineup card, and you have to deal with it and be prepared for whenever you get your number called. Mine didn't get called too much, but that's just how it is."
But most of all, they'll need a big night from Ventura to force the first World Series Game 7 since 2011 and second in the last 11 years. He may be the least experienced pitcher in the rotation, but he is the man for this moment. With Shields struggling this postseason, Ventura is the pitcher on staff capable of dominating the opposing lineup, as he did against the Angels in Game 2 of the ALDS, allowing one run over seven innings. "He's not your typical rookie," Hosmer said. "He's absolutely fearless out there. He's confident in himself and his pitches, and when he's firing strikes, just like he was the other day, he's pretty tough to hit. We like our chances."
In April, Ventura made headlines when he uncorked a 102.9 mph fastball in a game against the Rays. But his evolution over the next five months, from the development of his secondary pitches to his ability to control the running game, has made him a complete pitcher.
"His talent was evident from the very first start that he made with us," said Jeremy Guthrie. "When you watch him, you realize it's not just 100 miles an hour that gets people out, but he has a very, very sharp curveball and one that anybody would hope to have in their repertoire. He has an excellent changeup that he still doesn't even use as much as many other guys. I think we all expected the elite arm that we heard about, but I did not expect to be able to see those secondary pitches thrown for strikes and with the sharpness and the conviction that he has when he throws them."
We'll see just how much Ventura has grown up on Tuesday. It's back to Kansas City for Game 6, where this wild, strange, and thrilling World Series may come to a quick end — or, then again, we may be just getting to the good part.