Sometime before a parade broke out on the path from the visiting bullpen and well before a fight, or more accurately a halfhearted inter-dugout posturing contest, broke out around home plate, the Futures Game broke out at Kauffman Stadium.
Not to say that the Royals’ outstanding pitching staff has more to prove before belonging on this stage. They absolutely do belong. They unquestionably carried this team that boasted a 114 ERA+ to salvage a 91 OPS+, and they have them three games from a championship after a 7-2 victory Wednesday night evened the series at one.
But from first inning to ninth inning, the feeling of watching the Royals pitch is just unequaled in the regular season or even the postseason. You only get this in the Futures Game.
It’s the pitch that comes in at 101 and your eyes going out just as fast to check the radar gun. Then if there’s a dull interlude, it’s the glance out to the bullpen to see who is up next to top what the last guy was doing.
First it was the guy with the four-seamer that lives at 98 and the sinking stuff that’s just absurd at 97 when it’s working.
Then you looked out there and saw Kelvin Herrera, even faster, averaging 100 on both fastball types and maxing out at 102 on both.
When Herrera struggled, you took a glimpse out there and saw the lefty reliever of the future in Brandon Finnegan, four months clear of a College World Series appearance, in case you hadn’t heard that.
And finally, it was the guys with a little less flash and a little more polish – as the “grown-ups” Wade Davis and Greg Holland finished it up throwing “only” 98 and 96, respectively. Of their six outs, five were strikeouts.
Terrence Gore ran. Jarrod Dyson fielded. It was like an exhibition of everybody doing what they did best. The only shame was that unlike in the Futures Game, they couldn’t come out and then go do it in place of somebody else later.
Except this was real, and in their first game with a series deficit since the Don Denkinger game, the four hurlers – average age 25 and change – got the job done in very different ways.
For Ventura, despite the velocity, it wasn’t actually the strikeouts – he’s actually a fairly average strikeout pitcher, and the strikeouts Wednesday, although nasty, still numbered just two. For Ventura, it was avoiding the walks. If you’re giving up eight hits, you have to.
Ventura had walked four-plus hitters in seven of his last 14 starts (which means you know it was also seven of his last 15 starts) of the regular season and had totally lost the zone for a time in his last outing, walking three in an inning against Baltimore.
Both on his three ball counts and as a general trend, he migrated away from the bread-and-butter fastball to the two-seamer. He gave up a full-count home run to Gregor Blanco leading off the game on what was the eighth pitch and eighth four-seamer of the at-bat. He would switch it up later. The next time he faced a three-ball count, he threw a disgusting two-seamer at 97 to Brandon Belt for the strikeout looking. (0:35 mark here)
That would become his go-to on three balls, while the curve was effective when he was in more control, with that pitch actually getting three of his five whiffs despite sparing deployment.
As for the pitching on the other side of the 7-2 score, the Giants didn’t really listen. They weren’t satisfied getting Jake Peavy through five, even stealing a couple of outs at the top of the order the third time through. They wanted to send him one more time through the meat of the order, and while the Giants bullpen was bad too, this is what set it all up.
Peavy, of course, has been horrible his third time through the order, and while Lorenzo Cain didn’t crush him, that single combined with an Eric Hosmer walk in an extremely dangerous situation set the stage for the disaster of a sixth inning. Eight Royals faced five different Giants, including Hunter Strickland, who stole the show. He allowed the two-run double to Salvador Perez and his record-tying fifth home run of the postseason to Omar Infante.
Who knows what kind of opportunities the Giants’ hardest thrower will get in the final three to five games, but he may have only been spared the Tim Lincecum treatment because of Lincecum’s own injury after a very successful first inning of relief for the previously shunned righty.
If you’re looking for a less obvious inflection point – not that a five-run sixth inning really beckons you to look elsewhere – don’t forget Belt getting stuck in the mental mud between second and third base, denying a chance for Travis Ishikawa to hit with the go-ahead run on second. (The single he hit the next inning doesn’t factor. The single he hit the next inning doesn’t factor. The single he…)
With one out in the seventh, Herrera had just walked a pair – the only two walks the Giants would get all night – and went down 2-0 on Joe Panik. Relievers, including the left-handed Finnegan, were twirling in the bullpen, but a one-inning reliever (70 appearances, 70 innings this year if you want me to show my work) who looked both lost and frustrated remained on the mound for his second inning.
He’d missed way outside with pitches 1 and 2 below, but came back in on pitch 3, and despite a somewhat ugly receiving job behind the plate, got the call he deserved. Number 4 wasn’t easy either, a short fly ball that Dyson broke in on and caught in the defensive star’s first standout moment of his first World Series.
After that little blip, it was a 7-2 lead maintained and an easy finish for Davis and Holland, who should be plenty ready to do this again after the off-day if need be.