Vargas gives Royals veteran presence in Game 1

Left-hander opens ALDS against former Angels teammates

Vargas gives Royals veteran presence in Game 1

ANAHEIM -- The Royals were looking for more than just another starting pitcher when the signed Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million contract in the offseason.

They were also looking for another veteran presence on a relatively young pitching staff. The fact that Royals manager Ned Yost picked Vargas to pitch Game 1 of the American League Division Series against his the lefty's former team suggests the 31-year-old has been just that.

"You know, I feel great," Vargas said, "It's a lot of trust put in me, so I feel good about it. The fact that it's a team that I played for before and played for last year, I think all of us have friends throughout baseball, so when we get in between the lines, it's just us vs. them."

  Date Time Matchup/Result Network
Gm 1 Oct. 2   KC 3, LAA 2 video
Gm 2 Oct. 3   KC 4, LAA 1 video
Gm 3 Oct. 5   KC 8, LAA 3 video

It will be the first postseason start of Vargas' career, but Yost didn't have much choice in that regard. James Shields is the only Royals starter who has playoff experience, and he pitched in Tuesday night's 9-8 win over the Athletics in the AL Wild Card Game. But Yost also had options in right-hander Jeremy Guthrie and left-hander Danny Duffy. Instead, he went with Vargas, who last pitched against the Indians a week ago.

"Well, Vargy is on regular rest for us right now," Yost said. "We like the fact that he commands his fastball. He's got an outstanding changeup. We like him pitching in this park. His ERA is two runs less on the road. We feel like Vargy can get us off to a good start."

Vargas was 6-6 with a 4.53 ERA in 16 starts at home this season and 5-4 with a 2.73 ERA in 14 starts on the road. The biggest concern is he did not have a strong finish to his season, going 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA in his last four starts.

"Like most of our guys, he's gone through really, really good stretches and then some struggles in sections of the season," Yost said. "What he does so well is commands his fastball in, commands his fastball down and away, has a tremendous changeup and a nice curveball. He keeps everybody off balance because when they start looking for the changeup, he'll pound you in. When you start looking in, he starts throwing you the changeup and mixing in his curveball every once in a while.

"He got a little rotational in his delivery, which flattened his pitches out. His last two or three side sessions have been really, really good. He's back to north and south, commanding his fastball, commanding his changeup. We like the fact that he's a veteran guy. He's very composed and it's going to be a pretty electric atmosphere. We just thought that he was the right guy to start Game 1."

A veteran guy with composure was what the Royals were looking for when they signed Vargas to replace Ervin Santana in their rotation. In Vargas they signed a pitcher who had been with four different organizations and did not have overwhelming statistics but had studied and learned the craft of pitching. Plus he has an excellent changeup.

Shields is considered to have one of the best changeups in the game. This season opponents swung and missed at 29.5 percent of the changeups thrown by Shields. They whiffed at 35.6 percent of Vargas' changeups. He is not as overpowering as some of the Royals other young arms but was one of 11 AL pitchers to average under two walks (1.97) per nine innings.

"He just goes about his business the right way every day," Royals outfielder Alex Gordon said. "Whether he wins or loses, he's the same guy every day, and that's good for this team. He's a guy the young guys look up to. He's a professional and he's been around the game for a while, so he knows how to go about things."

Vargas embraced the role of being a leader and mentor for the Royals' young pitchers.

"I feel like that's a responsibility you get when you're put into a situation like that and a team puts that amount of trust in you," Vargas said. "I don't go over the top and try to bombard, but I definitely put my two cents in. I definitely try and help and move guys in the right direction. I might not always say the right things, but that's just how it is every now and then.

"The young guys on this team have responded to this second half tremendously, so their heads are in the right place."

Vargas' best season was with the Mariners in 2012, when he went 14-11 with a 3.85 ERA in 33 starts and a career-high 217 innings. He was traded to the Angels for designated hitter Kendrys Morales and was 9-8 with a 4.02 ERA in 24 starts and 150 innings in 2013. He was 6-4 with a 3.65 ERA in his first 14 starts then missed almost two months with a blood clot in his left arm. He was 3-4 with a 4.60 ERA in ten starts after he returned.

But he was healthy all season for the Royals and gave them another consistent starter in a rotation that had a 3.60 ERA, fourth lowest in the AL.

"He was very impressive," said George Brett, the Royals' vice president of baseball operations. "He is poised and he is under control. He pitches. He is a pitcher not just a thrower. He knows how to pitch."

Vargas will put that to the test against the Angels in Game 1.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.