SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- For Jakob Junis, it was worth the wait for his first Cactus League appearance. Considered a lock to make the rotation, Junis is also a prime contender to be the Opening Day starter.
Junis began with three scoreless innings Saturday against the D-backs, allowing one hit and no walks while striking out four. He then came out for a fourth frame and faced his first difficulty of the day. He gave up a run on two hits and a walk in the fourth and left the game without recording an out in the inning. Manager Ned Yost had him penciled in for three innings.
“He threw the ball really well,” Yost said. “I was pleased with his outing, pleased with Jake. I just wanted to get him up to somewhere about the mid-50s pitches. That way, we can get him to 65-70 next time. He did fine.”
Junis was glad for the challenge, even if the fourth frame marred an otherwise stellar outing.
“Four ups for the first time against live hitters. I don’t think I’ve ever done that,” Junis said. “I’m glad that they threw me out there to push it a little bit. That’s the only way I’m going to get built up and be ready for Opening Day. I didn’t have too many regrets out there. I made some bad pitches, and they took advantage of it.”
Junis is in the mix for Opening Day because of Danny Duffy’s delayed progression while dealing with tightness in his left shoulder. Should Junis throw every fifth day between now and the start of the season, he would be on pace to pitch on March 29, a scheduled off day the day after the Royals open their season at home against the White Sox. He has time to adjust his routine to pitch on March 28, if Yost decides to give him the nod, and three weeks of Cactus League play is plenty of time for scenarios to evolve.
What was most striking Saturday in the Royals’ 13-5 loss to Arizona was Junis’ effectiveness his first time out, putting all his pitches into play and having success across the board.
“I felt good,” Junis said, “felt like I had good rhythm going. Located my fastball down in the zone, threw some good sliders, threw a couple of good changeups. All in all, I’m pretty happy.”
The right-hander has been working on his changeup, and he said he threw a handful over the course of three-plus innings, but he found himself thinking in game mode and didn’t find as many opportunities where it made sense to deploy the change.
“I had one good one that I got a swing and miss on,” Junis said. “I probably should have thrown a couple more just to get it in there. But when I’m out there, I’m too competitive to throw that changeup when I don’t really feel like I need to, so that’s probably why I only threw five.
“It’s hit or miss. I’m throwing good ones in bullpens. It’s more consistent in the bullpen when I’m practicing. It’s just getting that feel for it in the game.”
He spent more time tuning his slider after missing down in the zone with it early in the game. By the time he worked through a few innings, he was getting swings and misses on the slider.
Junis has had a consistent first two years in the big leagues. He appeared in 20 games in 2017 (16 starts) and made 30 starts in 2018. He’s 18-15 with a 4.35 ERA in his first two seasons.
The 26-year-old was the last of the Royals’ starting pitcher candidates to get a Cactus League start. That’s because the Royals faced the Indians on March 3, when he would have made his first start. The Royals preferred not to give Junis extra exposure to a division rival they’ll face 19 times during the season. Instead, he pitched a simulated game and put the time on the mound to good use.
“It’s definitely different,” Junis said of his long-awaited spring debut. “There’s an umpire, there’s fans, there’s everything. It definitely gets your adrenaline going being out here on the game field. But that was good preparation to throw the two-inning sim game the other day, see some hitters and work on some sequencing and stuff like that. Good preparation for this first time out.”
It’s still early, but Junis is determined to be ready if his first turn in the regular season falls on the Royals’ first game of the season.