Young starting pitchers will play key roles in Royals’ playoff run

08/21/2014 7:37 PM

08/21/2014 7:46 PM

The youthful pillars propping up the Royals crossed paths Wednesday afternoon. With a hoodie covering his head, Danny Duffy lounged on a clubhouse couch a few hours before his 20th start of 2014. Yordano Ventura strutted past the couch, paused at his locker and ventured back into the trainer’s room to prepare for his 24th start of 2014 on Friday in Texas.

The formula for the Royals’ ascension to the top of the American League Central involves elements from each portion of the roster. The late-game trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland is suffocating. The outfield defense appears impenetrable, and Alex Gordon will merit MVP consideration. The late-season resurrections of Billy Butler and Nori Aoki have enlivened the offense.

Yet the least heralded and perhaps most crucial portion of the equation involves the reliability of the starting rotation. The current quintet has started 118 of the season’s first 126 games. Bruce Chen began the season in the rotation and started seven games in all. The outlier is Aaron Brooks, who melted down in a spot start in Toronto. The consistency sustains this club.

“That’s the utmost importance for every team,” manager Ned Yost said. “You start losing your pitch, man, it’s sayonara.”

The core of the rotation exemplifies stability. James Shields has never been on the disabled list. Jeremy Guthrie has thrown 200 innings in four seasons. Jason Vargas averaged 190 innings from 2010 to 2013.

The other 40 percent of the group was less predictable. Duffy, 25, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012. Ventura, 23, opened the 2013 season in Class AA Northwest Arkansas. Together they have logged 273 2/3 innings this year, each on the verge of the highest totals of their careers.

Down the stretch, neither will work under a strict innings limit, general manager Dayton Moore said. He does not expect to shift either pitcher to the bullpen to save innings, either. Their presence is essential.

“Consistency in your rotation is crucial if you’re going to have success,” Moore said. “And both of those individuals have gone out there and went to the post every fifth day and performed.”

The results are not always pretty. Duffy, 8-11 with a 2.53 ERA, suffered a mini-implosion, complete with a sudden grand slam, in a 5-2 defeat Wednesday. Ventura, 9-9, 3.48 ERA, coughed up a one-run advantage in his last outing against the Twins. He also experienced a health-related hiccup in May, when a valgus extension overload in his prized right elbow cost him a start.

Neither Duffy nor Ventura has ever completed a full big-league season. For the Royals, the trick will be keeping the pair performing well down the stretch. The bulk of this task falls on the shoulders of pitching coach Dave Eiland.

In the last few weeks, Eiland counseled the two to reduce their workload between starts. Duffy tosses his bullpen session a day later than usual. Playing catch the day after a start is no longer mandatory. Eiland estimated a third of their throwing had been eliminated, and “we’ve cut the volume and the intensity back a little bit,” he said.

This is a common practice for a starting pitcher. Veterans understand spells of fatigue appear in mid-June and mid-August. Neophytes like Duffy and Ventura require guidance from their elders. For Duffy, two years removed from surgery, a preseason meeting with trainer Nick Kenney was instructive.

Kenney counseled Duffy to take his preparation more seriously. Duffy undertook his between-start activities with “more conviction,” he said.

“I thought that I was maxing it out, but I wasn’t mature enough to realize that there’s another gear you have to kick it into,” Duffy said. “Once you realize that in order to stay here, and that you want to stay here for a long time, you have to make the call to man up.”

With Ventura, Eiland had to offer more nuanced advice. He had told Ventura all year long to perform his throwing exercises with less intensity, to protect his arm. He rebounded from his long physical setback, the elbow pain in May, with his trademark brand of 100-mph fastballs.

His consistency still revolves around his curveball. When Ventura commands the pitch, he can dominate opponents. Even when he lacks the proper touch on the breaking ball, his fastball allows him to survive. His biggest hurdle may be his youth, and lack of experience.

When he was 23, Vargas suffered sophomore-season regression with the Marlins. At the same age, his future teammates were in various stages of development and repair. Guthrie was a junior at Oregon State. Shields began his fifth season in the minors. Duffy landed on an operating table.

Ventura is in the majors at 23. He has not been a star. But he has still been a formidable memorable of the rotation.

“That’s another testament to what Yordano’s done this year,” Duffy said. “Just turning into a man, on and off the field. We’re all really proud of him. It takes guts. It takes a lot more than people think to turn it on that quickly, let alone turn it on at all.”

Now the team must keep the duo thriving as the season concludes. Moore stressed the club could not predict injuries. All they could do was protect them, provide advice on preservation and allow their talent to shine.

“The commonality that both of those guys have is their arms work well,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of naturalness to what they do. When your arm works, and has that looseness and that freedom, you can get by with a little more mileage. It’s less effort. It’s less taxation.”

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