KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Royals check a lot of world championship boxes. The lineup is balanced and deep. The defense might be the best in baseball. They're exceptionally hungry after coming so close in 2014. And even if closer Greg Holland is down with Tommy John surgery, the back end of the bullpen is still as secure as a steel vault.
The questions and the skepticism have always revolved around Kansas City's starting pitchers, whose 4.34 regular-season ERA was the worst among the 10 MLB postseason teams and 22nd overall in baseball.
The answer, it appears, might come courtesy of the 2008-2011 Cincinnati Reds.
Their names are Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez. They pitched and roomed together on the banks of the Ohio in their formative years, and now they're asserting themselves at the best possible time. Cueto got the Royals over the first-round hump with a masterful outing in the finale of the American League Division Series against the Houston Astros. And Volquez maintained the momentum Friday night at Kauffman Stadium, tossing six two-hit, shutout innings against the Toronto Blue Jays to lead the Royals to a 5-0 victory in Game 1 of the League Championship Series.
With his impressive 111-pitch performance, Volquez relegated all other developments to subplot level. The right-hander's performance certainly belied his 0-3 record and 8.76 ERA in three previous playoff starts with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and the Royals.
"Tonight was the Volquez show," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "He was tremendous."
The Volquez show has been an every-fifth-day staple this summer in Kansas City. Signed to a relatively modest two-year, $20 million contract in December, Volquez gave the Royals consistent and reliable outings amid a buffet of injuries, random ineffectiveness and occasional rotation chaos. He led the Royals with 200⅓ innings and a 3.55 ERA and tied Yordano Ventura for the club lead with 13 wins, even if his 6.96 strikeouts per nine innings screamed, "pitch to contact."
But these were the Blue Jays, who have a way of making even the heartiest pitchers look average and spacious ballparks look confining when they're in launch mode.
Before Friday's game, everyone seemed to concur Volquez's best chance was to establish the inner half of the plate to keep the Toronto hitters from getting too comfy in the box. But something funny happened in the bullpen: Volquez felt very comfortable throwing to his glove side, and he conferred with catcher Salvador Perez on the walk into the dugout and suggested it might be wise to stray from the script.
"I told him, 'I feel sexy throwing down and away,' " Volquez said. "And he told me, 'All right, let's do it.' He trusted me to do it that way."
Volquez had the Jays off balance right out of the chute, throwing 3⅔ hitless innings before Chris Colabello lined a single to center on his 56th pitch of the evening. According to Daren Willman of Baseballsavant.com, Volquez's average fastball velocity of 94.77 mph was the highest he has shown in a game since 2012.
"It's that postseason juice,'' said Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, meaning juice as in enthusiasm. "It's obviously a long season, But when you have 45,000 people waving towels and going crazy, you're obviously going to get amped up. The good thing is, he was still in the zone. You saw the increase in velocity, but you didn't see him overthrowing or missing up. He looked like the same guy out there."
Crunch time arrived in the sixth inning, with Kansas City leading 3-0 and the heart of the order due up for Toronto. Volquez kept making good pitches, but Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista both worked him for nine-pitch walks, and the needle edged perilously closer to empty.
But Volquez kept flinging, and locating, and manager Ned Yost resisted the opportunity to pull him for Kelvin Herrera, who was getting warm in the pen. After a visit from pitching coach Dave Eiland, who urged him to slow down and stay within himself, Volquez rewarded Yost for his patience. He struck out Edwin Encarnacion, retired Colabello on a fly ball to left and froze Troy Tulowitzki on a full-count fastball to end the inning.
At various points in the sixth inning, the sellout crowd raised Volquez's spirits with cheers of "Ed-dy! Ed-dy!'' as he navigated the Toronto lineup. Volquez needed all the help he could get during a 37-pitch monument to craftsmanship and guts.
"He went out there and pitched his heart out tonight,'' Royals pitcher Danny Duffy said. "I looked over at Kris Medlen sitting next to me, and I was like, 'Dude, that's how you leave it all out there.' He's a horse, but I'd be shocked if he wasn't exhausted right now.''
The mental strain of navigating the Toronto lineup was as taxing as the physical effort. You want ingenuity? Volquez threw 10 changeups among his 18 pitches to Donaldson and Bautista, and ended the inning with seven straight fastballs of 95 or 96 mph to Tulowitzki. Toronto's shortstop is velocity-challenged while playing with a cracked shoulder blade, and the Royals weren't about to cut him any slack.
Volquez, who has bounced from San Diego to the Dodgers to Pittsburgh to Kansas City since 2013, is clearly having a blast this postseason, and the experience has been enhanced by the arrival of his old friend and fellow Dominican Cueto, who dresses in the adjoining locker. Volquez was admittedly inspired by Cueto's dominant eight innings in Kansas City's 7-2 ALDS clincher against the Astros on Wednesday.
"We're friends,'' Volquez said. "I saw what he did the other day and I was like, 'It's time for me to do something good.' I hadn't won a game in the playoffs and I got one tonight. I think I got a little bit of motivation from him.''
Physically sore and filled with pride, Volquez will arrive at Kauffman Stadium on Saturday and cheer on Ventura against David Price in Game 2. The bar has been raised for a strong effort by another Royals pitcher. And the Toronto hitters will soon find out if sexiness in the rotation is contagious.