KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Edinson Volquez scribbles messages to himself before he pitches. The phrases form the foundation of the rejuvenation he underwent last year, so he memorizes little sayings like “first-pitch strikes,” “three pitches and out” and “stay tall.” Sometimes he marks the mantras on his hat. Sometimes he writes notes and carries them to the mound in his pocket.
On Sunday afternoon, Volquez saw no reason to sully his Kansas City Monarchs cap. For seven innings in a 6-0 victory over the New York Yankees, Volquez required no reminder of his ideal performance. If he sought inspiration, all he needed was a mirror reflecting his performance in the cream and navy blue of the Monarchs uniform, which the Royals wore in a salute to the Negro Leagues.
“I think I pitched my best game all season with that uniform,” Volquez said. “I’m going to keep it.”
Volquez shouldered the load as the Royals, 24-14, downed the Yankees, captured another series and authored their first shutout of the season. The hitters pounded New York starter Chris Capuano. Salvador Perez poked a solo home run in the second and contributed an RBI single in a three-run fourth inning.
Undeterred by the lingering blister on his right thumb, Volquez rolled through the Yankees lineup, brushing aside their aged collection of All-Stars. He allowed three hits and walked none.
Volquez demonstrated mastery of all three of his pitches. He hummed his mid-90s fastball inside to handcuff the Yankees’ left-handed hitters with “really, really good action,” manager Ned Yost said. Volquez’s change-up faded in the opposite direction and inspired whiffs. He spun his curveball for strikes. No Yankee reached third base against him.
“He was fantastic,” Yost said.
“It’s as good as I’ve ever seen him,” said Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, Volquez’s former teammate in Texas.
“Stud,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said.
The victory allowed the Royals to breeze into Monday’s day off. The club returns to Kauffman Stadium for a two-game series with the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday. On Friday night, the St. Louis Cardinals travel west for the first leg of the I-70 Series. If St. Louis faces Volquez, that team will see a player far different than the one who floundered for so many seasons in Cincinnati and with the San Diego Padres.
Volquez has established himself as an unlikely constant for the Kansas City rotation. Danny Duffy may be pitching for his position in his next outing. Yordano Ventura has yet to rebound from his antagonistic April. Jason Vargas resides on the disabled list and Jeremy Guthrie balances forever on a tightrope. Chris Young has allowed one earned run in three starts, but Yost has declined to officially promote him to the rotation.
Then there is Volquez. Two months shy of his 32nd birthday, he operates as a mentor for players such as Ventura and Kelvin Herrera, a stabilizing force for the team and an exemplary tale of the potential for a midcareer renaissance.
On Aug. 27, 2013, Volquez received a call from Bud Black, his manager with San Diego, around noon on the day of a game. A few days earlier the Cubs had blistered him for six runs and bounced him in the first inning. His ERA was 6.01. Black asked Volquez to come to the park early.
“I knew what was going to happen,” Volquez said.
The Padres designated him for assignment. Volquez cleared waivers, released by the team that asked him to start opening day in the same season. He landed with the Dodgers, posted a 4.18 ERA in six games and plotted a comeback in free agency.
His agent, Lenny Strelitz, suggested Volquez would benefit from working with Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage and front-office pitching guru Jim Benedict. Pittsburgh had become a hub for reclamation projects. Before Volquez arrived, the duo rebuilt floundering hurlers such as Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett.
“They know how to fix people,” Volquez said.
Searage stressed simplicity to Volquez. He encouraged him to write those messages on his hat. Volquez possesses an enviable arsenal. When he was a prospect, scouts compared him to Pedro Martinez. But in the years since Tommy John surgery in 2009, Volquez’s mechanics devolved.
Searage contrasted video of Volquez in his youth and Volquez in his dark periods. He made a series of subtle suggestions and tweaks, aimed toward recapturing Volquez’s youth and erasing the bad habits he learned in the intervening years.
With each offering, Volquez said, he dropped his hands to his midsection before returning them to his chest. The extraneous motion misaligned his upper half with his lower body, leading to poor location. Volquez also removed his right hand from his glove too early, and exposed the baseball to the hitters.
“They probably knew what was coming,” he said.
Re-aligned and re-adjusted, Volquez responded with his finest season since his All-Star campaign in 2008. Searage convinced Volquez to eschew strikeouts in favor of soft contact. Volquez produced grounders gobbled up by his defenders. He finished the season with a career-low ERA (3.04) and a career-low walk rate (3.3 per nine innings).
“Edinson was a joy to work with,” Searage wrote in an email to The Star. “He is a super teammate and always kept things at an even keel. Never too high or too low. He trusted our process and stuck with it. He may give me credit but he had faith in himself and his abilities.”
The Royals gambled Volquez could repeat his performance outside of his Steel City comfort zone. Handed a two-year, $20 million contract, Volquez resembles a bargain. Rival scouts at Kauffman Stadium felt the Yankees looked overmatched in Volquez’s presence on Sunday.
“He was on today,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “He was firing strikes. They were quick innings. He never really got himself into any jams, or any trouble right there.”
Volquez retired the first 11 batters. Alex Rodriguez smacked a two-out double in the fourth to interrupt the reverie. Volquez drilled Teixeira with a fastball. Protecting a one-run lead, Volquez stepped off the mound to compose himself.
Up came Yankees catcher Brian McCann, another left-handed hitter. Volquez had tormented McCann with change-ups in their first encounter. This time he dropped a curveball for a first-pitch strike. He flipped two more change-ups. With the count at 1-2, Volquez buzzed a 94-mph fastball past McCann’s empty swing.
“I was able to make a lot of good pitches,” Volquez said. “A good sequence. And I got the out.”
In the bottom half of the inning, Kansas City knocked around Capuano. After walks by Lorenzo Cain and Hosmer, Kendrys Morales hit an RBI single, Perez got an RBI single and Omar Infante roped an RBI double. The Yankees did not get a runner to second base again against Volquez.
After the game, the Royals designated Volquez their player of the game. They dowsed him with water, a postgame tradition. Volquez dried off and held a press conference. He explained to reporters the a approach that has become instinctual for him, a strategy he absorbed last season and still writes reminders to himself in 2015.
“I was able to throw a lot of strikes,” Volquez said. “Attack those hitters. And keep the ball down.”
It sounds so simple. The career of Volquez proves it is not. His ability to practice it this season will only benefit the World Series aspirations of the Royals.
“He’s been doing that all year,” Moustakas said. “He’s been dealing for us all year.”