The Royals got into another dust-up on Thursday, this time a brawl with the White Sox, and once again Yordano Ventura was a central figure. If Ventura and his teammates don't change their ways, it could threaten to derail their season.
Yordano Ventura and the Kansas City Royals need a timeout. On Thursday, for the second time in as many starts, Ventura’s night ended in an ejection, this one coming after he and White Sox leadoff man Adam Eaton got into a shouting match after Eaton hit a comebacker to the mound that ended the seventh inning. That touched off a benches-clearing brawl that reignited the embers between Royals centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija, whose conflict stemmed from the latter drilling the former in the left arm with his first pitch following a Mike Moustakas home run on Opening Day. By the time the game resumed, five players had been ejected, including both starting pitchers in Ventura and Chicago’s Chris Sale (who had dueled to a 2-2 tie for seven innings), Samardzija, Cain and Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez, who came off the bench to throw a couple of haymakers.
In their last six games, spanning Ventura’s last two starts, the Royals have drawn nine ejections (five more than any other team has on the entire season) and been involved in multiple bench-clearing brawls with two different teams (the A’s and White Sox), and Ventura himself has verbally attacked an opposing hitter in each of his last three starts. Thus far, no one has gotten hurt, but at the rate they’re going, it will only be a matter of time before the Royals’ extracurricular aggressiveness results in an injury to another player or one of their own. Less than a month into the follow-up to their dream 2014 season, the Royals have gone from being a team nearly impossible not to root for to baseball’s resident heel.
That heel-turn took effort. As recently as last Friday, the Royals were more victim than aggressor. First there was Samardzija drilling Cain on Opening Day with a 93-mph two-seamer that started inside and tailed in. Then there was Oakland’s Brett Lawrie, a notorious hot-head, sliding late into Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar to break up a double play last Friday, knocking Escobar out of that game and the next two as well. The poor Royals.
Then came Escobar’s bizarre reactions to Lawrie’s apologetic texts after the game. According to Lawrie, who said he got Escobar’s number from Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, Escobar wrote him back and refused to accept his apology, claiming, like Cain did regarding Samardzija, that the incident was intentional. Escobar then told the media that he had never received a text from Lawrie at all.
Enter Ventura. In the top of the fourth inning on Saturday, after giving up a three-run home run to Josh Reddick, Ventura drilled Lawrie in the side with a 99-mph fastball, drawing his first ejection of the season and causing the benches to clear. The next day, Royals manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland were ejected for arguing after Cain was hit in the ankle by a Scott Kazmir sinker in the bottom of the first. Later in that game, with the Royals up 2-1 and two men out in the top of the eighth, Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera threw a 100-mph pitch behind Lawrie, drawing not only an ejection for he and bench coach Don Wakamatsu, but a five-day suspension for himself as well, causing both benches to empty and Escobar, still inactive, to be tossed also.
Then came Thursday night’s game and the dust-up touched off by Ventura and Eaton, marking the fourth time in the Royals' last seven games that the benches cleared and the first time in that span that actual fighting took place, with Cain and Samardzija at the center of the action and Volquez throwing punches. Suddenly the Royals have gone from being lovable underdogs who play hard and clean to roughnecks with a big chip on their collective shoulder. That may be little more than narrative, but the fact of the matter is that the Royals can’t continue to throw at opponents and instigate bench-clearing brawls without adversely affecting their season. Herrera has already drawn a suspension, and if they keep mixing it up, someone is going to get hurt far worse than Escobar, who returned to action on Monday. It’s true that the Royals have been hit by a pitch a major league-leading 17 times this season, tied with the Rangers, while hitting just five batters, actually a tick below league average, but an eye-for-an-eye just leaves everyone blind.
Ventura, especially, needs to learn this lesson. In addition to being responsible for three of the five batters hit by Royals pitches this season, he has gotten into it with an opposing hitter in each of his last three starts, beginning with his confrontation with Mike Trout in his second start of the season, and has caused the benches to empty each time. Some of that may be the natural competitiveness of a young fireballer, as seen when he stared down Pablo Sandoval on a comebacker in last year’s World Series, but there’s a difference between being intense and being confrontational, and Ventura has crossed the line in three of his four starts this year. None of those incidents in and of themselves might have been enough to draw a suspension from Major League Baseball (though one could argue his hitting Lawrie should have), but his accumulated actions should at this point.
Either way, the Royals’ coaching staff and front office need to act to curb Ventura’s actions. Four starts into his sophomore season, the 23-year-old Ventura has yet to be removed from a game by his manager because he has twice come down with a crippling cramp and twice been ejected. That’s the track record of a young player who is spinning out of control. Given Ventura’s talent, potential and importance to his team, the Royals can’t allow that to happen, and they can’t continue to treat baseball games like gladiatorial combat and expect to emerge unscathed.
Hosmer, for one, acknowledged as much after Thursday night’s game, suggesting a team meeting was in order. “You’re always concerned, especially when punches are starting to be thrown,” Hosmer said, according to the Des Moines Register. “You want to make sure ... no one gets hurt, because there’s a lot of good players out there, especially a guy like Sale, or someone like that. They’re the face of this game. You don’t want them getting hurt over a stupid brawl like that. ... We need to just meet as a group and control our emotions a little better as a team.”
The Royals have three more games against the White Sox this weekend, and while Samardzija will not pitch in any of them, Volquez is slated to start on Saturday. Here’s hoping the Royals’ players and coaches do indeed take the initiative to de-escalate things in this series and beyond before someone does get hurt and before the league feels compelled to get involved. With regard to the latter, however, it may already be too late.
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