KANSAS CITY — The ingredients were there for a young pitcher to get rattled Monday at Kauffman Stadium.
Jharel Cotton never let that happen. Instead he prevented the Royals’ sold-out crowd from becoming a factor in their home opener, spinning a beauty of a performance in the A’s 2-0 victory.
According to catcher Stephen Vogt, Cotton’s warm-up routine didn’t follow the usual pattern due to an extended pregame ceremony in memory of Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, who died in a January car accident. There were starts and stops for Cotton as he prepared during the ceremony, which had several A’s players, not to mention manager Bob Melvin, commenting on how powerful and moving it was.
“We’ve seen him pitch some really good games,” Melvin said of Cotton. “But the pressure of that game, a full house, a lot going on, and to be on it right away too. Sometimes nerves can get to you a little bit, then you kind of settle into your routine. But he was on it right away. I don’t know that he could have pitched better.”
Indeed, the rookie was dialed in from the get-go. That helped him build confidence after he struggled in his season debut against the Angels. Importantly, Cotton was retiring hitters early on without having to show his best pitch, the changeup.
“He didn’t have to use his changeup until the second time through (the lineup) a little bit, and the third time through he used it a lot,” Vogt said. “Anytime you can avoid somebody’s best secondary pitch until the third time through, he’s doing a pretty good job.”
Cotton has a mid-90’s fastball, a curve and a cutter he can also attack hitters with. Then later in the game, as the late-afternoon shadows fell between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, hitting conditions became tougher and Cotton’s changeup was especially effective.
“Vogt really called a good game,” Cotton said. “He knew when to call the changeup and just put the right numbers down every single time.”
The Royals invited Ventura’s mother, Marisol Hernandez, and other relatives from the Dominican Republic to attend the touching pregame ceremony, which included a video montage on the JumboTron while a saxophonist played “Amazing Grace.”
Then a large group of Royals players brought out a banner reading “Ace 30” and unraveled it behind the mound to the loud cheers of fans. Ventura wore No. 30, and the Royals are keeping a locker stall in his honor this season in their home clubhouse, complete with a jersey and photos of Ventura.
The A’s had some history with Ventura, most notably an early-season game in 2015 when Ventura was ejected after hitting Brett Lawrie with a pitch, a day after Lawrie slid extremely hard into Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar at second base.
But there was nothing but respect for Monday’s ceremony, and the memory of Ventura, in the A’s clubhouse.
“I can’t imagine what it was like for (the Royals), knowing him, having been so close to him,” A’s reliever Sean Doolittle said. “It was really powerful for us, and none of us really knew him. For them to watch that … for them to take the field right after that, I can’t imagine the emotions they were feeling.”
Given that environment, Doolittle was all the more impressed with Cotton’s performance, especially coming off a debut in which the right-hander lasted just 4 1/3 innings in a loss to the Angels.
“For a young guy to have a bounce-back outing like that, in this environment, Opening Day here, a lot of energy in this stadium, that’s huge for him to have that kind of poise and maturity,” Doolittle said. “It’s a really, really, really good sign.”