KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Late in yet another lost season, an announced crowd of 22,960 fans showed up at Kauffman Stadium, on an NFL Sunday to boot, to see the out-of-contention Royals meet the pitiful Cleveland Indians, who had lost 40 of their previous 52 games.
Mostly to see the Royals’ future, as in rookie Jake Odorizzi, the right-handed prospect acquired in the Zack Greinke trade and quite possibly the team’s most promising young pitcher in decades.
This is how eager (desperate?) Royals fans are for some glimmer of hope.
And Odorizzi did not disappoint in his major-league debut.
Odorizzi, 22, overmatched the Indians through five shutout innings, giving up just two hits while walking one and striking out three. But in the sixth inning, Odorizzi faded slightly, surrendering a ground-ball triple down the right-field line, a sharp single to right and then a two-run bomb to Carlos Santana that sailed into the right-field bullpen.
Odorizzi gave up another single before skipper Ned Yost came to get him with the Indians up 3-1. The Tribe went on to rout the Royals, 15-4, in what quickly thereafter resembled a bad spring training game.
“Not much to talk about in this game,” Yost said later, “except about Jake and his debut.”
No debate here, or from the impressive September crowd which gave Odorizzi a loud ovation as he left the mound and headed for the dugout.
“I was very appreciative of that,” Odorizzi said. “That felt good.”
Reminded that many Royals fans have been waiting almost two years to see him reach the big leagues, Odorizzi smiled and said, “Well, I hope I can keep giving them things to cheer about.”
The pitching-starved Royals do, too.
And at least the early signs were encouraging. Odorizzi mixed his pitches well, keeping the Indians off balance with a low 90s fastball that darted around the corners and a changeup that varied in speeds from 71 mph to 83 mph.
“That was the thing I liked to see,” Yost said. “He really mixed it up. They didn’t get many good swings until that sixth inning. He showed good command and was very competitive. Very pleased.”
Although some scouts have compared Odorizzi to a young Greinke, Yost wasn’t going there.
“I’m not making any comparisons with him,” Yost said. “He’s got his own style.”
The comparison to Greinke is likely in approach only. Greinke, too, likes to frequently use his off-speed pitches to keep hitters guessing.
But at 6-foot-2 and a slim 185 pounds, Odorizzi doesn’t possess the sturdy physique of Greinke, and certainly doesn’t boast Greinke’s velocity, which can hit the upper 90s.
Odorizzi’s fastball was consistently in the low 90s, sometimes even upper 80s.
“But hitters were swinging at the fastball like it was upper 90s,” Yost said.
Odorizzi didn’t seem surprised when told his fastball was only reaching 91 mph.
“I don’t really pay attention to that,” he said. “I kind of judge it by how the hitters are swinging.”
And until the sixth inning Sunday, hitters were not catching up to Odorizzi’s fastball. He had only three strikeouts but he also induced numerous routine fly balls and ground outs.
“I don’t really care what the outs are like,” he said. “If they’re fly outs or strikeouts or ground outs, it’s all OK.”
In all, Odorizzi threw 87 pitches, 55 for strikes.
“I felt like I had pretty good command of my pitches,” he said. “I left some balls up in the sixth and that’s something I have to correct. I had been getting behind some hitters on the first pitch so I wanted to throw a strike to (Santana) and it was a fastball up. He got it pretty good but he’s a fastball hitter looking for it on an 0-0 count. He got it.”
But the booming homer hardly dampened the enthusiasm from the Royals’ faithful, who have been waiting a long time for a legitimate pitching prospect to come through the pipeline.
They’re hoping — begging — that Odorizzi is the real deal.
“I’m hoping for that, too,” Odorizzi said. “I’m hoping this is something to build on. I’ve got one more start this year and I’m looking forward to that in Cleveland. This is very exciting for me.”