April 10, 2017

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Kelvin Herrera hitched up his pants and tucked in his crisp, white jersey inside the Kansas City clubhouse, the space beside him empty but for a framed jersey and memories to last a lifetime.

The simple wooden locker is where his good friend, Yordano Ventura, once dressed for games.

''It's hard,'' the Royals' closer said sadly.

On a sun-splashed opening day in Kansas City, erstwhile feelings of joy and excitement were met by a profound sense of melancholy. Ventura's death in an offseason car crash in his native Dominican Republic left a gaping hole in the tightly knit organization, and the wounds that began to heal in spring training were raw once again as the Royals prepared to honor Ventura before playing their home opener against the Oakland Athletics.

''We have to take a positive out of a negative,'' Herrera said, before heading to the field. ''He's going to be an inspiration for us, but we have to move forward.''

That's hard to do with reminders of the exuberant pitcher everywhere you turn.

Across the clubhouse from his locker, which bore the placard ''ACE 30'' above it, there is a black and white photo of Ventura in action. And in the other lockers, there are framed pictures of Ventura with each of his respective teammates - reminders impossible for them to miss.

On the field, the tarp covering the pitcher's mound carries the same ''ACE 30'' insignia that makes up a patch on their jerseys, and the same message adorns the team's Hall of Fame in left field.

''I don't know if you can ever disassociate yourself from it, or make yourself numb to it, because he was such a big part of us,'' Royals manager Ned Yost said. ''It's still heartbreaking to a lot of guys.''

Prior to the home opener, and after hundreds of balloons were released to the sky, the Royals honored Ventura with a stirring tribute. Pictures of him flashed on the massive, crown-shaped video board in center field and there was a moment of silence before a saxophonist began to play ''Amazing Grace.''

His mother, Marisol Hernandez, took the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. She wore her son's No. 30 jersey and delivered the pitch to his longtime catcher, Salvador Perez.

''It's a tough day,'' said another of Ventura's good friends, shortstop Alcides Escobar. ''This is not easy because everybody is reminded of Yordano. We just have to play for him. But it's hard.''

Ventura was preparing to report to spring training in Arizona on Jan. 22 when he was killed on a dangerous section of road in the Dominican. He had signed with Kansas City as a 17-year-old in 2008 and shot through the minor leagues with an electrifying fastball that touched triple digits.

Twice he helped the long-downtrodden Royals reach the World Series, beating the Mets in five games to win it in 2015. But his signature moment may have come during the previous Fall Classic, when Ventura shut out the Giants over seven innings to force Game 7 - despite learning his close buddy, Cardinals outfielder Oscar Tavares, had just been killed in his own car crash in the Dominican.

''There's nothing that helps you prepare for something like this,'' Yost said. ''But you know, it just takes time. It's the only thing that's going to heal things, is time.''


More AP baseball: www.apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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