Ventura was ahead in the count 1-2, and as Gomes backed out of the batter's box, the pitcher stood still on the mound, his glove at his chest, his breathing heavy, his eyes severe. As Gomes settled in, Ventura brought one foot back, pulled his hands down to his belt, then cranked his left knee into the crease of his torso. As he drove toward the plate, his right shoulder cocked back, and his whole body tilted backward like the bed of a dump truck. He looked for a moment like a kid trying to throw a stone at a passing airplane, but then his body unsprung, and he delivered his pitch right on target.
The velocity flashed on the television broadcast: 102 mph. The more precise reading from baseball's PITCHf/x system reported something faster: 102.816.
It was the hardest pitch a starter had ever thrown in a regular-season game, at least since 2008, when PITCHf/x started measuring every pitch. It came in Ventura's major league debut.
Ventura's career ended in shock early Sunday, when the 25-year-old was killed in a car wreck in the Dominican Republic. To talk of his potential as a pitcher feels frivolous in comparison to his potential to be a friend and a mentor, a husband and a father, an old man relaxing on a park bench. But his pitching is how we knew the young man, and it's how we can put his potential on some comprehensible scale. That pitch, at 102.816 mph, is perhaps the easiest way to grasp how his potential lived.
His debut that day was highly anticipated. He was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, and a few months later, Baseball Prospectus would name him the 12th-best prospect in baseball. He joined a team that was similarly loaded with promise. The Royals were emerging from almost 20 years of misery, and that week they were on the verge of clinching their first winning season in a decade. The crowd for the Tuesday evening game was boosted by a large turnout of walk-up sales, the Royals' broadcast told us, and the game had "a playoff atmosphere." Some 6,000 more fans were there than had attended the previous night's game.
Ventura's first pitch as a major leaguer was 96.15 mph, way high for a ball. As he tried to calm down, he threw the next pitch at 95, high for a ball. Then 94, high for a ball, and 95, high for the walk.
"You can understand the emotions," Royals color analyst Rex Hudler said. "Or maybe you can't understand it."
Then Ventura settled in, and as he did, he started to top himself. To the No. 2 hitter, Nick Swisher, he threw a fastball at 98.73 mph, which Swisher grounded into a double play. To the No. 3 hitter, Jason Kipnis, he threw a pitch 98.98 mph before striking Kipnis out on a steep curveball.
Against Michael Brantley in the second inning, he threw a fastball on the inside corner at 99.34 mph. He finally broke 100 on the next pitch: 101.24 mph, in the dirt.
And then, in the third, against Gomes: 102.816.
Sometimes, the most incredible achievements get lost. Gomes lined that fastball into shallow center field, and Jarrod Dyson's diving attempt at it was perhaps an inch shy of collecting the out. The radar gun in Kauffman Stadium, according to the next day's game stories, had recorded Ventura's fastballs no higher than 101 that day, so to somebody in attendance, the pitch would have been merely impressive. They didn't stop the game. They didn't remove the ball and send it to Cooperstown. There was no immediate ovation from stunned Royals fans. It just got lost.
But the single pitch might have been the greatest performance that a Royals fan saw all season -- or in the 20 seasons before it. Before Ventura's debut, the list of the fastest pitches thrown by starters in the PITCHf/x era looked like this:
1. Justin Verlander: 102.431
2. Justin Verlander: 102.350
3. Justin Verlander: 102.328
4. Justin Verlander: 102.263
5. Justin Verlander: 102.236
6. Justin Verlander: 102.213
7. Justin Verlander: 102.074
8. Justin Verlander: 102.054
9. Justin Verlander: 101.996
10. Justin Verlander: 101.987
At 6-foot-5, Verlander looks the part. At 5-foot-11, Ventura looked, in the postgame words of Swisher, 19 years old. There was clearly something freakish about him, physically -- something in his shoulder and his elbow that allowed him to generate so much arm speed, which sometimes made it look easy for him to do what he did. But his velocity was the result not of size or pure strength but of the torque he generated, his ability to control and manipulate his body to create incredible momentum toward the plate. It came from a maximum leg lift and a long stride. It came from a "combination of upper-body load and a delayed trigger [that] act to create massive hip-shoulder separation," in the words of Doug Thorburn, an expert on pitching mechanics and the co-author of Arm Action, Arm Path, and the Perfect Pitch. Ventura was born with something, and he built the rest. He earned every tick.
But even that got him only to 99, to 100. Every great athlete combines good genetics with sheer will, and in 102.816, Ventura showed the latter. The three pitches he had thrown Gomes to start the at-bat were all between 99 and 100 mph, which alone made him one of the hardest-throwing pitchers who've ever lived. But in that moment, he added something unfathomable, 3 extra mph on top of an already inhumane fastball, and he became for just one moment something incomparable to anything that had ever existed.
It was an outlier. Ventura never threw a pitch so hard again. Then again, neither has any other starter since then. Nathan Eovaldi came closest, hitting 102.5 in August 2015. Noah Syndergaard threw a pitch that was 102.03 mph in June. Carlos Martinez reached 101.769 in May. James Paxton hit 101.391 in June. Every pitcher who has topped 102.816 is a reliever, a role that affords extra advantages to the flamethrower but that Ventura worked his entire career to avoid.
Had he lived, he probably never would have thrown a pitch harder than that one. The fastest pitch he threw in 2016 was 101.388 mph, and his average fastball was down almost 2 mph from 2013. Most pitchers start losing velocity young, and unless Ventura moved to the bullpen, he was likely to keep shedding a tick every couple years.
We all know that poster-ready saying, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." Most days, it's a reminder that no matter how disappointed we are in what we did yesterday, today we can be better. But it's true the other way too: No matter how exciting yesterday was, today forces us to start over.
Yordano Ventura appeared to have a long career ahead of him, and most likely, it was going to be different than anything he had done before. He would be embarking on it every day, as he learned to pitch with less velocity but more craft, as he struggled through off-starts and injuries and compiled quiet successes. Stretches of it would have bored us. It would have added up to a career. It would have been harder for us to appreciate than that 102.816 mph pitch, though the work that went into it might have been easier to comprehend.
At least we got to see him fulfill one part of his potential. That day in September 2013, when he had single-handedly created a playoff atmosphere out of a Tuesday night game, when he walked off the mound to a standing ovation, Ventura had accomplished something that nobody else in history had. Very few pitchers can truly show you something that nobody else could, and he was one. He did it. It's right here, and you can watch it as many times as you want.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.