MINNEAPOLIS — When the Kansas City Royals take their places along the third-base line in Minnesota for the introductory ritual of opening day, the absence of their former teammate will surely be felt.
The Twins have planned a pregame tribute to Yordano Ventura, the power-armed starting pitcher who died in a car crash at age 25 during the winter in his native Dominican Republic.
“It’s a tough hole to explain that you have when you lose a teammate and you’ve got six months to spend with somebody and you don’t get to do that anymore,” Royals left-hander Jason Vargas said.
Transitioning from a somber remembrance, however brief, to balls and strikes will be an extra challenge for the visiting team at Target Field on Monday afternoon.
“Obviously it’s going to be tough. He’s been on your minds ever since it’s happened,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “We’ll see if we can lock it in for a couple of hours, try and get a win and get done with the game and continue to live out his legacy and celebrate his life.”
The Twins will also honor their own former pitching prospect Yorman Landa, who died in an offseason car crash in Venezuela.
Ventura made his major league debut at the end of the 2013 season, when he overlapped with Twins right-hander Ervin Santana’s lone season with Kansas City. Santana, who will take the mound on Monday opposite Royals left-hander Danny Duffy, expressed his sorrow at the loss of his fellow countryman before the Twins gathered on Sunday for a workout.
“It’s terrible. I’m happy for them to do the honor of him, but at the same time I’m sad because he’s not part of the game tomorrow,” Santana said. “He left. It’s going be hard for everybody, but we’re going to get through that.”
After consecutive American League championships and a World Series title in 2015, the Royals were thwarted by injuries and regressions last season while finishing 81-81.
Hosmer is in the final year of his contract, along with third baseman Mike Moustakas, shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain. All can become free agents.
“It could be the last chance a lot of the guys who have come up together have to compete with each other for one last championship together,” Vargas said. “We all know what’s going on. We’ve got the pieces in place, and we’ve got a good chance to make another run.”
The Twins have a lot more ground to cover than that, coming off a club-worst 59-103 finish for which the tone was set by an 0-9 start.
“As much as last year I think kind of sticks in the craw of some of our people, it doesn’t guarantee that you can just go out there and say, ‘Hey, lightning’s not going to strike twice,'” manager Paul Molitor said. “We have to have the mindset from day one of how important games are early. They all count. I think we’re better prepared this year as far as potentially being able to handle the ups and downs that the game brings, whether personally or as a team.”
The Twins have announced a sellout for Monday, with only standing-room tickets left.
“We understand that our fans are kind of looking for hope,” Molitor said. “Just be open-minded. Come out and see us. We’re excited to have a great crowd for opening day, and hopefully they’ll get to see us get off to a good start.”