However, for the Royals to fend off the Tigers and lock down a playoff spot, the team will need rookie fireballer Yordano Ventura to further his success down the stretch.
Ventura opened eyes with his outstanding start to the season, as the flame-throwing right-hander registered a 2.40 ERA with 53 strikeouts over 48.2 innings (eight starts) and held opposing hitters to a .213 batting average.
But Ventura's performance regressed toward the end of May, possibly due to a minor elbow injury that led to severely decreased velocity and ultimately an early exit from his May 26 start. Though Ventura was able to avoid the disabled list, he still didn't appear to be pitching at 100 percent in subsequent outings. His numbers from June 5 through July 20 tell a similar story, as the 22-year-old posted a respectable 3.75 ERA over 50.1 innings but struck out only 29 batters compared to 16 walks during that span.
Since then, however, Ventura has looked like his usual self over his last seven starts, with a 4-1 record, 2.84 ERA and 44-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 44.1 innings. More importantly, Ventura's second-half resurgence has played a major role in the Royals' ascent to first place in the AL Central, as the team is 6-1 overall in his starts.
So what's behind Ventura's rebound exactly?
To me, the trend suggests that Ventura is worrying less about executing pitches with precision—not to say he's incapable of doing so—and instead trusting his electric stuff. He's continued to walk too many batters during the second half—which is understandable for any rookie hurler toward the end of his first full MLB season—but there's no denying he's been more effective overall.
The result has been fewer hits and more strikeouts in each start. Specifically, Ventura has allowed five or fewer knocks with at least six strikeouts and six innings pitched in five of his last seven outings. The right-hander has been especially dominant of late, with 22 strikeouts and just 15 hits allowed over his last 25 innings (four starts).
Royals manager Ned Yost discussed his promising right-hander following his Aug. 22 start (via MLB.com):
There's kind of two Yordanos. There's the one that was within himself and was banging strikes and staying downhill. Then there was one when he was just throwing out there -- rearing back and struggling to command the ball down and was getting a lot of pitches up.
When he stays within himself he's really a pitcher out there and when he starts rearing back, he turns into a thrower.
During spring training, Yost noted that Ventura would be allowed to work 180-200 innings this season after logging 150 frames in 2013 across three levels.
However, considering Ventura has now accrued 175.1 innings this year between spring training and the regular season, the team may be forced to adjust the plan for the young right-hander.
On paper, Ventura has five starts remaining this season assuming the Royals stick to a five-man rotation. If that's the case, then his starts will come against the following teams:
|Yordano Ventura's Remaining 2014 Starts|
|Sunday, Sept. 7||@ Yankees|
|Friday, Sept. 12||vs. Red Sox|
|Wednesday, Sept. 17||vs. White Sox|
|Tuesday, Sept. 23||@ Indians|
|Sunday, Sept. 28||@ White Sox|
Surprisingly, Ventura's only success against the aforementioned teams has come versus the Indians, against whom he owns a 2.08 ERA over 21.2 innings this season. On the flip side, the right-hander struggled in his only starts against the Red Sox (4.1 IP, 6 ER) and White Sox (6 IP, 4 ER).
However, Ventura's track record of facing teams multiple times suggests he'll fare much better against both of the Sox.
This brings us back to his workload.
Ventura would finish the regular season (including spring training) with roughly 205 total innings should he complete at least six innings in each of his five remaining starts. And that doesn't factor in his potential postseason workload.
With a potential divisional title and playoff berth on the line, it's hard to see the Royals limiting Ventura's workload down the stretch, especially with him pitching so well.
That plan could change for the postseason, though, as the Royals' deep starting rotation could take some of the stress off Ventura's workload in October, possibly allowing him to work out of the bullpen.
At the same time, the Royals aren't going to mess with what's made them successful this season. Therefore, expect the team to milk every inning out of Ventura moving forward within reason.