Cueto, Volquez, Ventura share close bond
Trio of Dominican starters trying to pitch Royals back into World Series
TORONTO -- Rene Francisco stepped inside the home clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium to say hello to Johnny Cueto on an afternoon in early August, about a week after Kansas City acquired the distinguished right-hander to boost its World Series hopes down the stretch. Next to Cueto sat Edinson Volquez, and next to Volquez sat Yordano Ventura. Francisco, the Royals' assistant general manager in charge of international operations, has spent the better part of the last 20 years grooming and nurturing starting-pitching prospects in the Dominican Republic.
Seeing them together, he quickly grasped the magnitude of their kinship.
"You guys can make history together," Francisco told them that day. "Imagine that -- three Dominican starters in the World Series."
So much still needed to happen then. Cueto -- who will start Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Blue Jays on Monday (7 p.m. ET air time on FOX Sports 1 and Sportsnet, with game time at 8 p.m.) -- still needed to settle in with his new team; the 2015 Royals still needed to figure out who they were.
But here they are now, two wins away from the World Series with a rotation fortified by three starting pitchers from the same baseball-rich island. It's the first time in history that a postseason team has three starters from the same foreign country.
"The three of them," Francisco said, "they push each other. Each one wants to be better than the other."
While pondering the dynamic among Cueto, Volquez and Ventura earlier this week, Royals manager Ned Yost thought back to his days as the Braves' bullpen coach in the 1990s. He thought about Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, three Hall of Fame pitchers who helped each other reach new heights.
"Maddux pitched a great game, Smoltzie was going to do the exact same thing, and then Glavine would go out and do the exact same thing," said Yost, his team leading the Blue Jays, 2-0, as the ALCS shifts to Rogers Centre. "There was inner competition among the starters to go out and throw a great ballgame because the one before him did."
Volquez is the most experienced, Cueto is the most accomplished and Ventura is the most talented. Cueto is quiet, Volquez is outspoken, Ventura eccentric. They grew up in different regions of the Dominican -- Cueto in San Pedro de Macoris, Volquez in Santo Domingo and Ventura in Samana -- but they bonded in the Midwest.
Cueto and Volquez first met while on the Reds from 2008-11, rooming together during Spring Training and staying up many nights competing in PlayStation.
Together, they've taken Ventura on as something of an adopted little brother.
"I always watched them pitch," Ventura said in Spanish. "When I got to know them in person, I realized they're great people. They've helped me out a lot; they've talked to me a lot. I appreciate it."
After Ventura blanked the Cubs through seven innings on Sept. 28, Volquez walked to his locker shaking his head.
"Man," Volquez said, "we taught that little [kid] everything we know and now he's better than us."
Cueto laughed. Ventura, 24 years old and all of 180 pounds, possesses the blistering fastball and the knee-buckling curveball, two plus pitches he put on display while going 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA as a rookie in 2014. Ventura parlayed that into a $23 million contract and became the team's de facto ace once James Shields departed via free agency.
Then came the growing pains.
He got into an on-field confrontation with Angels star Mike Trout, was part of a benches-clearing incident against the White Sox in Chicago, beaned the A's Brett Lawrie, served a seven-game suspension and got demoted to the Minor Leagues in late July. Ventura put a lot of pressure on himself to live up to the hype, but he also needed to be pushed. As one Royals executive put it: "He needs that carrot in front of him."
Cueto became that carrot on July 26, after coming over from the Reds. Indirectly, he motivated Ventura. Directly, he stressed the importance of feel and location. From Aug. 11 until the end of the regular season, Ventura posted a 2.38 ERA, striking out 81 batters in 68 innings -- and few consider that a coincidence.
"Locating pitches," Cueto said when asked what he preached to Ventura, "and not going out there just throwing all crazy."
Volquez -- on a roller-coaster path until seemingly finding himself with the Pirates last year -- has been the Royals' most consistent starter all season and has ramped his fastball up to the 95- to 96-mph range since the middle of September.
Cueto struggled to end the regular season, posting a 6.49 ERA over his last nine starts. But his true form revealed itself in Game 5 of the AL Division Series, when he held the Astros to two runs in eight innings. The 29-year-old will be a pricey free agent at season's end, whenever that is -- but he wants to stay.
"It's a young team, a team that's together," Cueto said. "It's good for me. But let's see what happens."
If Cueto does depart, the three of them promise to stay in touch. As Ventura put it, "We'll always have that bond."
"It's always been a huge sense of pride for us, especially now that it's the first time that it's happened in the playoffs," Volquez, 32, said of sharing a playoff rotation with his countrymen. "We're all really proud to be on this team, to have each other."