-- KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Yordano Ventura's defining moment in the 2014 postseason could have easily occurred in the American League wild-card play-in game, when he pitched in an unfamiliar role out of the Kansas City Royals' bullpen and gave up a potentially crushing homer to the Oakland A's Brandon Moss. It was the type of confidence-sapping failure on a grand stage that could have haunted him for a while. At the very least, it prompted a few Internet alarmists to mention Salomon Torres, the former Giants prospect who experienced the mother of all meltdowns on the final day of the 1993 season.
Future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez was Ventura's champion and biggest advocate on that evening, tearing into Royals manager Ned Yost for putting the kid in such a difficult spot and giving Ventura the equivalent of a personal pep talk on national TV. It wasn't your fault, Martinez told Ventura. Keep your head up and things will be fine. It was a less emotional, baseball version of the speech Robin Williams delivered to Matt Damon near the end of "Good Will Hunting."
Naturally, in keeping with events of this wild October, things evolved to a redemptive state. The Royals recovered to beat the Athletics and advance to the division series. Then they sailed through two rounds of American League playoffs, with Ventura contributing a lights-out performance against the Los Angeles Angels and a serviceable effort against the Baltimore Orioles to advance the fairy tale narrative.
But that was all child's play compared to the challenge Ventura faces now. If the San Francisco Giants are indeed the runaway dynasty that they're shaping up to be, the Royals have to make a stand quickly or risk comparisons to the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who cut a swath through October before being broomed out of the World Series by the Boston Red Sox.
It took precisely 19 pitches Tuesday night for Kauffman Stadium to go from frenzied to eerily quiet, and for critics to grouse anew about the juxtaposition of James Shields' postseason numbers and the nickname "Big Game James." From Kansas City's perspective, the best thing to be said about the 7-1 opening-game loss was the persistence of Royals' fans, who didn't begin exiting en masse until there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Of course, it's easy to overstate the importance of one game, but history says that getting a jump in the World Series is of major importance. The winner of Game 1 has gone on to win 68 times, or 62.4 percent. It's happened in 10 of the past 11 World Series and 15 of the past 17, with the 2002 Giants and 2009 Phillies being the only Game 1 winners to fail to see things through to the finish.
The Kansas City players would rather hang their hats on a different set of precedents. The team with home-field advantage has been victorious in 23 of the past 28 World Series. And the Royals went 42-39 at Kauffman Stadium during the regular season and 47-34 on the road, so it's not a given that they're going to wilt when the action shifts to San Francisco.
But they'll need a big effort from Ventura, a Dominican native who has generated Pedro comparisons through the years because of his 6-foot, 180-pound frame, upper-90s fastball and wipeout breaking stuff. That's only fitting, given that Ventura's earliest baseball memories, from when he was 13 years old, were watching Martinez and fellow Dominican native Manny Ramirez help lead Boston to a world championship in 2004. Now he's all grown up at 23, and he and Pedro are regular texting buddies and have the whole mentor-protégé things going.
"Pedro has always been that player that I learn from and grow from," Ventura said Tuesday through Royals teammate Jeremy Guthrie, who serves as his translator. "He always encourages me to be myself and to treat every game just like I always have. No game is more important [than another]. He tells me to go out there relaxed and throw my pitches and be myself."
That philosophy worked quite nicely during the regular season, when Ventura went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA and joined Matt Shoemaker, Collin McHugh, Dellin Betances, Jake Odorizzi and Masahiro Tanaka as one of several young AL pitchers chasing rookie of the year votes that didn't go to Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu.
When we last saw Ventura, he was leaving Kansas City's Game 2 American League Championship Series victory over Baltimore with tightness in his shoulder in the sixth inning. But the medical reports are fine. And the Royals have never questioned Ventura's obliviousness to pressure. Manager Ned Yost elicited a chuckle during the ALCS when he revealed that his players all call him "Skip" with the exception of Ventura, who refers to him as "Nedyo."
"His side sessions have been absolutely dynamite," Yost said. "And he's a tremendous competitor, even for as young as he is. I can't recall too many pitchers in my career that have his type of composure, confidence and stuff at that young an age."
The Royals have played with an edge throughout October, bunting in the early innings to squeeze out a run or two, protecting those leads with voracious defense and giving opposing lineups a sinking feeling all over as Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland began cranking it up in the bullpen. That formula didn't work so hot when Shields gave up a two-run shot to Hunter Pence in the first inning to put the Royals in an immediate 3-0 hole.
Shields, who passed a kidney stone two days after his most recent start, declined to use that malady, the rust from an extended layoff or the cumulative toll of nearly 250 innings pitched for a disappointing October that has produced a 7.11 ERA in four starts. His command was off in the first inning, and he put the Royals in an inescapable hole. But the latest episode in Shields' October travails wasn't enough for Yost to even entertain the idea of replacing him with Danny Duffy if and when Game 5 rolls around. Yost responded with a succinct, "Yeah," when asked if Shields will make his next start as scheduled.
For now, the Royals and Giants are both fixated on Game 2, which offers up an enticing blend of pitching contrasts. In one corner there's San Francisco veteran Jake Peavy, he of the tattoos, animated mound persona and three career All-Star appearances. In the other there's Ventura, with his wipeout stuff and seemingly limitless future.
According to FanGraphs, Ventura ranked first among big league starters with an average fastball reading of 97 mph this season, while Peavy was 66th among 88 qualifying starters at an even 90. Yet Ventura's swinging strike percentage of 10.3 wasn't far removed from Peavy's 9.3 rate. Score one for experience and resourcefulness.
"It's hard for me to back away and look at it like a fan would, but anybody who watches the game is going to see a young, up-and-coming kid with as much talent as anybody in the game -- and me, trying to figure out a way to go out and combat that," Peavy said. "My stuff might not be as loud as his. But if I stay within myself and make my pitches, I think I can put up zeros with anybody."
Peavy, at 33, pitches with a passion borne of his Alabama roots. He describes it as "the old Southern, dig your toes in the mud and try to make your stand" brand of competitiveness. Ventura is harder to read from the outside, but the Kansas City players who share a clubhouse with him firmly believe he'll come at the Giants with his A-game.
"He's not scared," Shields said. "He's got a lot of guts and a lot of heart. This guy has some of the best stuff I've ever seen out of a starting pitcher. Hopefully, he can go out there and do his job and shut these guys down and we can go to San Francisco 1-1."
In Game 2 at Kauffman Stadium, Yordano Ventura will be pitching for fans back home in the Dominican Republic, the honor of George Brett and Pedro Martinez and the fulfillment of Royals rooters who've waited 29 years for this series and would love to see it last a while. If the kid is looking for a formative experience, he has come to the right place.