Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

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Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Yordano Ventura quit school as a teenager so he could begin working a construction job to help his family make ends meet, laboring day after day in the hot sun of the Dominican Republic.

It was a chance tryout with the Kansas City Royals that changed the trajectory of his life.

Yordano wowed scouts with an electrifying fastball, the best they had seen in years, and a confident demeanor that bordered on brash and arrogant. And both of those traits served him well as he rocketed to the major leagues, helped the Royals win a long-awaited World Series championship in 2015, and became one of the most popular players in a city that embraced baseball one again.

Ventura, whose nickname "Ace" fit so perfectly, died Sunday in a car crash on a stretch of highway near the town of San Adrian in his native Dominican Republic. He was 25.

"Our team and our organization is hurting deeply," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "It's certainly something that puts everything into strong perspective, and challenges us all to never grow tired or weary or cease to do what is right, and loving others. Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.

"We loved Yordano," Moore said. "We loved his heart, we loved who he was as a teammate, a friend. He was somebody that challenged us all and made us better and I'm going to miss him."

Highway patrol spokesman Jacobo Mateo said Ventura died on a stretch of highway 40 miles northwest of Santo Domingo, the nation's capital. Mateo did not say whether Ventura was driving.

He's the second young star pitcher to die in past four months. Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was 24 when he was killed along with two other men in a boating accident near Miami Beach in late September.

Also Sunday, former major league infielder Andy Marte died in a separate car accident in the Dominican Republic. Metropolitan traffic authorities said he died about 95 miles north of the capital.

"I was traveling to the airport this morning and I got a phone call wanting to know if I'd heard about Yordano, and I thought they meant Marte," Moore said. "My first thought was, `Were they together?'

"Then shortly afterwards, I got a call from Major League Baseball confirming this tragedy."

The Dominican Republic has the second-highest traffic-related death rate in the world -- officials there believe alcohol, speed and a blatant disregard for traffic laws is to blame. Oscar Taveras, Jose Oliva, Rufino Linares and Jose Uribe are among players who have died in crashes in the country.

It wasn't known whether Ventura had been drinking or speeding at the time of his accident.

Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, a fellow Dominican whom Ventura called his hero, posted pictures of Ventura and Marte on Twitter and said, "Guys, the only way we can pay tribute to you, is by reflecting on the adjustments we all have to make in this game called life."

Moore speaks frequently with Latin American players about dangers of returning home, including driving on the perilous roads.

"I'm more intentional about it to the point where it probably goes in one ear and out the other," Moore said, "but we're constantly discussing these things."

The Royals lowered flags at Kauffman Stadium to half-staff Sunday, and displayed Ventura's photograph on the large, crown-shaped scoreboard in centerfield of the empty ballpark. Fans were leaving flowers, hats and other mementos within hours of learning of his death.

Royals teammates learned the news in a text chain and took to Twitter to share their sorrow.

"I love you my brother. I'm in disbelief and don't know what to say," first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas also expressed disbelief, tweeting: "I love you Ace. I don't know what to say other than I'm going to miss you a lot. RIP ACE."

Ventura will be buried Tuesday in the Dominican Republic. Moore, manager Ned Yost and other members of the Royals are planning to attend.

Before his start in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, Ventura paid tribute to Taveras, his close friend and countryman who had been killed days earlier in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Ventura wrote "RIP O.T (hash)18" on his hat and also wrote messages on his glove, cleats and the mound before shutting out San Francisco for seven innings in a win.

"If he was still here, I would for sure be talking to him, and Oscar would be very happy for me," Ventura said afterward. "Oscar was a very humble guy and very likable, and I'm going to miss him a lot."

Ventura signed a $23 million, five-year deal with the Royals shortly before he started on opening day in 2015. He then helped them bounce back from their loss to the Giants in Game 7 by returning to the World Series and beating the New York Mets in five games for their first crown since 1985.

The right-hander went 11-12 with a 4.45 ERA last season, and his fiery demeanor was never more evident than when he hit Orioles star Manny Machado with a fastball to trigger a brawl. Ventura was suspended nine games for the pitch, though it was cut to eight on appeal.

In a surreal coincidence, the 33-year-old Marte played his final game in the big leagues for Arizona on Aug. 6, 2014. Ventura started that game for Kansas City.

"Today is a very sad day for our entire game and particularly for the many loyal fans in the Dominican Republic, the home of both Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.

Said players' union head Tony Clark: "It's never easy to lose a member of our fraternity, and there are no words to describe the feeling of losing two young men in the prime of their lives. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families, friends, teammates and fans throughout the United States and Latin America."

Moore said he spoke to Miami general manager Mike Hill early Sunday, in part because Moore admired the grace and heart in which the Marlins organization dealt with Fernandez's death.

It wasn't certain whether Fernandez was driving the boat when it crashed on Sept. 25. He had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.147, above Florida's legal limit of 0.08, according to autopsy reports released by the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office.

"That was one of the first things that came to mind when I began to figure out how we were going to process this," Moore said. "Mike was able to provide some insight. Just give me some comfort, really."

Ventura wound up pitching his entire career for the Royals, going 38-31 with a 3.89 ERA.

Born June 3, 1991, in Samana, Dominican Republic, Ventura was a true rags-to-riches story. He quit school at 14 and was laboring on a construction crew to support his family when he heard about a tryout, which led to a spot in the Royals' academy located on his picturesque island home.

Still, the odds were long that Ventura would ever make it to the big leagues. Very few players from the Dominican academies reached the pinnacle of the sport.

But over time, Ventura was able to harness one of the most electric fastballs that scouts had seen in years, and his headstrong and confident nature was essential to his rapid rise. He made his debut to great fanfare in 2013, allowing just one run again Cleveland in a sign of things to come.

He eventually became a cornerstone of a youth movement that included young stars such as Hosmer and Moustakas, one that carried the Royals first to respectability, then to the top of the American League.

He was 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, and helped the Royals reach the World Series for the first time in nearly three decades. Then he helped to lead them back to the Fall Classic in 2015, this time completing the job on a crisp night in New York.

"He always had a zest for life, an innocence about the game, a freshness, a fearlessness," Moore said, his voice cracking. "He was a very compassionate human being, loved to compete, no doubt challenged us, but that made us better. Nobody could ever doubt how much he cared about his teammates, how much he cared about the fans, and how much he loved to compete and to pitch."

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

The benching of Maikel Franco lasted for a second day Wednesday.

When will it end?

"It's a day-to-day thing," Pete Mackanin said. "No specific plan."

Franco is hitting just .221 with a .281 on-base percentage and a .377 slugging percentage.

Mackanin first benched his third baseman/cleanup hitter on Tuesday. At the time, the manager said he was trying to take some heat off the slumping Franco and let him clear his mind, but the overriding reason for the benching is simple: Mackanin is looking for Franco to make the fundamental adjustments in his swing that will lead to more production.

"At this level you've got to produce," Mackanin said Tuesday. "You want to play, you've got to hit and they have to understand that. Nobody is here on scholarship.

"As much as he works in the cage and on the field in batting practice and does it right, when he gets in the game his head is still flying and his bat is coming out of the zone.

"I can't teach you to keep your head in there. I can tell you to do it, but you have to do it on your own and he's got to figure it out. … If you make outs the same way over and over, it's not going to change."

Franco on Wednesday said he understands the benching. He is disappointed in his production.

"Yes, I'm disappointed," he said. "I know I can produce better and help the team more. Nobody wants to be in this situation, hitting .220. The only thing to do is try to get better.

"I think any good hitter hitting .220 is going to be disappointed. I will not stop working and doing what I have to to get better."

Typically, a manager, especially one such as Mackanin, whose strength is communication, would speak to a player and lay out the reasons for an extended benching.

But Mackanin has chosen to let the lineup card do the talking on this one. He'd like to speak with Franco about the situation, but wants the player to come to him.

It doesn't sound like that's going to happen.

"They understand and I understand, you know?" Franco said. "I'm not the guy to go into the manager's office and say, 'Why am I not in the lineup?' I want to play. He knows what he's doing and I know what I'm capable of doing. Every single day when I come in, I'm 100 percent mentally ready to be in the lineup and I'm ready to play. If I'm not in the lineup, I have to get relaxed and just try to do everything I can to make an adjustment so when I'm in the lineup, I'll do my job."

Andres Blanco played third base in place of Franco on Tuesday and Wednesday. If Franco doesn't improve when he gets back in the lineup — whenever that may be — there could soon be another player in the mix at third base.

Howie Kendrick began a minor-league rehab assignment at Lehigh Valley on Wednesday night. He played left field in that game. Mackanin said the rehab stint would last four games and that Kendrick would also play first and third base.

Do the math on that one.

Franco can be optioned to the minors so that could also be a possibility if his problems persist.

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Hellickson good to go; Franco sits again

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Hellickson good to go; Franco sits again

Phillies (15-28) vs. Rockies (30-17)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies' nightmarish skid continued Tuesday as they dropped a second straight game to a Rockies rookie starting pitcher.

They've been outscored 16-3 in the first two games of this four-game series against a Colorado club that has the best record in the NL and more road wins (17) than the Phillies have total wins.

Let's take a look at Game 3:

1. Hellickson good to go
The Phillies got a scare last Friday night when Jeremy Hellickson hurt his lower back during his seventh-inning at-bat, but they avoided disaster when it was diagnosed as mere stiffness as opposed to something more serious like a strained oblique.

Hellickson said that night and again the next morning that he felt fine and wouldn't miss a start. The Phillies are thankful for that given the inefficiencies of their rotation, which has just 16 quality starts in 43 games, third-fewest in the majors.

Hellickson (5-1, 3.44) was locked in last weekend against a weak Pirates lineup but this is much more of a challenge. Don't expect him to set down 16 of 17 batters the way he did in Pittsburgh.

The Phillies are 8-1 when Hellickson pitches this season and 7-27 when anyone else does. The only loss in a Hellickson start came against the Cubs on May 2, the first of a three-start skid in which Hellickson allowed 12 runs in 13⅔ innings. Of those 12 runs, 11 scored via home runs. He allowed seven homers in those three starts after giving up just two in his first five.

The Rockies present a lot of challenges and one of them is that they've been the second-best team in the majors this season against the changeup, which is Hellickson's go-to pitch. Only the Marlins (.312) have a higher batting average vs. changeups than the Rockies (.286).

(For reference, the Phillies are 28th in baseball against changeups with a .201 batting average.)

Then again, not all changeups are the same, and Hellickson did limit the Marlins to one run on seven hits over six innings when he faced them April 27.

Current Rockies are just 10 for 56 (.179) off Hellickson. Ian Desmond has the only homer (2 for 5, HR, double).

2. Blackmon the Destroyer
Charlie Blackmon, good lord.

The guy has seven home runs in his last five games at Citizens Bank Park. Over that span — Aug. 12, 2016 through last night — Blackmon has more homers at CBP than any Phillie.

Think about how ridiculous that is. Aaron Altherr and Ryan Howard are next with six homers in 15 and 17 games, respectively. Then comes Freddy Galvis with five in 26 games.

3. Fading fast
At 15-28, the Phillies are on pace to finish 57-105. They've dropped 19 of 23 and now have the second-worst record in the majors, ahead of only the 16-31 Padres.

The offense has been completely devoid of life lately. It's not like these guys are going out and playing with zero energy, but when you don't hit, it's always going to seem like that.

Since May 12, the Phillies are 2-9. They've hit .225/.273/.345 as a team for the second-worst OBP and OPS, ahead of only the Mariners.

They've been middle of the pack with runners in scoring position over that span, but they have just 89 plate appearances with RISP, which is seventh-fewest in baseball.

A lot of this can be attributed to the top of the order. Cesar Hernandez is 9 for 54 (.167) with no extra-base hits over his last 14 games. And that vaunted 1-2 in the Phillies' order — a duo which hit close to .350 in April — is down to .282.

4. Scouting Chatwood
The Phillies face 27-year-old right-hander Tyler Chatwood (3-6, 5.09).

He was the Rockies' best starting pitcher last season when he went 12-9 with a 3.87 ERA in 158 innings. He walked 70 and those control issues have continued this season — 27 walks in 53 innings.

He's been especially wild lately, walking 19 in 21⅔ innings this month. 

Chatwood averages 95 mph with his fastball and sinker and 88-90 with his slider and changeup. He also throws a high-70s curveball.

He faced the Phillies twice last year and went 0-2, allowing 10 runs (eight earned) in nine innings. Interestingly, though, no active Phillie has an extra-base hit against him.

Hopefully, the Phils will be able to make Chatwood work tonight and take advantage of their opportunities with men on base. They stranded the bases loaded three times last night.

5. Franco sits again
Maikel Franco and Cameron Rupp are sitting again. Pete Mackanin wants the extremely inconsistent, wild-swinging Franco to sit back and watch for a few days to regroup. He also wants to see some more of Andrew Knapp after a rough defensive week from Cameron Rupp.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Aaron Altherr, LF
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Andres Blanco, 3B
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Andrew Knapp, C
8. Michael Saunders, RF
9. Jeremy Hellickson, P