Keeler: Ex-Royal Odorizzi says start against KC is ‘all business’

Rays starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi made his major-league debut in 2012 as a member of the Royals.  

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The poker face is the same. It’s been 18 months since he last walked the clubhouse level at Kauffman Stadium, 16 months since he was traded away for the Ace of Now (James Shields) and 40 months since he was acquired for the Ace of Then (Zack Greinke). But New Jake on Monday sounded a lot like Old Jake, same as it ever was. The kind of level you could use to hang a shelf.

"I’ve already been here; I’ve done it," Jake Odorizzi, the former Royals farmhand-turned-young-Rays starter, told FOXSportsKansasCity.com before the first game of the Tampa Bay-Kansas City series at The K. "It’s just going to be another day for me.

"I’m not going to take any more energy into the game, or any less, just because it’s here. So I’m going to treat it just like it was a start against a team I’ve never been on."

All-business, then?

A nod.

"It’ll be business for me," Odorizzi said.

It’ll be about memories, too. The 24-year-old right-hander says he’s never been happier than he is right now, basking in the Rays’ rotation — but there’s history here, and you never, ever forget your first. Old Jake and The K go back a long way, at least as far as milestones go: The MLB Futures Game, which Odorizzi started for Team USA in July 2012. The major-league debut that followed came on Sept. 23 that year, against Cleveland.

"Yeah, I’m sure there’s something in the back of his head that he definitely wants to prove them wrong in dealing him, or something along those lines," Rays teammate Alex Cobb said of Odorizzi, who’s slated on Wednesday to make his first start at Kauffman Stadium in nearly two seasons, when he’ll likely oppose former teammate Jeremy Guthrie. "But I think once the game comes around, I think he’s going to be very focused on getting his job done, (with) no outside variable really contributing to it or impacting how he plays or how he pitches."

Oh, he wants it. We just don’t know how much.

Odorizzi is the same cool dude now that he was then, more or less, careful to keep his true feelings in check, voice barely above a whisper. Despite having made just two starts with the big club in Kansas City, the Illinois native remains a strange footnote in Royals team history, through no real fault of his own, having been acquired from Milwaukee (along with center fielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar) for the All-Star Greinke in December 2010 and then shipped out to Tampa in December 2012 (along with young slugger Wil Myers) for another All-Star arm in Shields.

"I think it really helped both teams," Myers said Monday. "It helped KC win right away, and I guess it helped the Rays — I don’t know. But I think it was a good trade on both sides."

The Royals, with Shields pulling the sled at the top of the rotation, won 86 games last year, an improvement of 14 victories over the season before and the franchise’s first winning campaign since 2003. Myers, meanwhile, played in 88 games with the Rays, hit .293 with 13 home runs, and was named American League Rookie of the Year. Kansas City needed an ace and a culture change; Tampa needed a bat. Check and check.


"We gave up an extremely talented pitcher — two of them," Cobb said, a nod to ex-Rays reliever Wade Davis, another part of the swap. "And we’ve got some really good, promising talent that you don’t know how it’s going to pan out. But fortunately for us, it has. And it looks like it’s going to even more so in the future."

Just as he had with the Royals in 2012, the 6-foot-2 Odorizzi spent most of last summer dominating Triple-A hitters. But when an injury to Jeremy Hellickson opened up a derby during spring training for the fifth and final spot in the Rays’ rotation, the young righty surged ahead of the pack — thanks in part to a new toy: a combination change-up/splitter that dives off the table once it reaches the hitter.

Odorizzi’s new pitch — unofficially dubbed "The Thing II" — was the result of an offseason throwing session with Cobb, who has been showcasing the same weapon ("The Thing") for the last six seasons. Cobb showed him the grip and the arm slot, and the ex-Royal did the rest, melding it into his repertoire.

"Something different," Odorizzi explained. "It’s got a little different look to it, different everything. It’s been a big weapon so far, and it’s been used a lot, so I’ve got a lot of confidence in it. And I’ll continue to throw it and continue to throw it where I feel it’s needed."

New Jake threw it quite a bit last Friday in Tampa against Texas, and with good results: He racked up his first big-league win, fanning four Rangers in six shutout innings in an 8-1 Rays victory.

"It was awesome," Cobb said. "He was (hitting) the zone, both sides of the plate, featuring great off-speed pitches. I was drawn back a little bit with how well of a pitcher he became in that short amount of time. It was very impressive to see his demeanor on the mound and his maturity and his mixing up pitches and really setting up hitters. It was really cool to see."

Oh, he wants it. We just don’t know how much.

"I feel strongly about where we are," Odorizzi said of his current club. "I don’t know much about (the Royals); I haven’t been following them. Since the trade, (I) just left everything behind. I don’t need to follow them anymore; nothing that they do affects me. It’s kind of out of my head. But I know what we’re doing here is something great, and we’re really prepping for a big season.

"I’ve enjoyed being here (with Tampa) every day; this is my favorite spot that I’ve been in. The people here are the best people I’ve ever been around (as far as) teammates, getting to know everybody. And getting to be up there and be around everybody, this is my favorite spot to be in, and I think this is the happiest I’ve been with (the) whole team in general. Everybody’s just themselves; they don’t have to be somebody that they’re not."

Myers has done the Welcome-Back-To-KC dance already. During an unusual, one-game makeup of a snow-out — it’s hard to forget a snow-out in May — at The K last Aug. 26, the ex-Royals farmhand held a news conference for the local scribes.

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"Hopefully, this is the last day that it’s a big deal," Myers chuckled on Monday as some of those same faces asked some of the same questions. "No more.

"Yeah, yeah, I understand (the attention). I just kind of want this to be like another game. You know, it’s not really coming home for me, at all, because I didn’t play here in the big leagues for the Royals. You know, I just wanted it treated as a normal game."

Which, of course, it isn’t.

And it isn’t for Odorizzi, either.

"Well, just pitch how he normally does," Myers offered with a shrug. "I don’t know. I don’t know anything about pitching, (so) no, I don’t have any advice. I know he pitched against them last year (in Tampa)."

But that was then. This is now. This is The K, the familiar, the site of so many former glories, with family and friends driving in from downstate Illinois.

Oh, he wants it. We just don’t know how much.

"Yeah, he wouldn’t (tell you)," Cobb said. Then he laughed. "He wouldn’t tell us, either. He’s not just hiding it from you."

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.