Royals fans will be hoping they have seen the last of Johnny Cueto. Not because of his performances, but because it would mean when the club returns to Kansas City, they would be doing so not for a high-stakes Game 6, but as World Series victors.
Cueto’s three-month rental at the Royals has had more ups and downs than a dodgy romcom, but ultimately, when the franchise has needed their hired ace to deliver, the Dominican has swaggered around the mound like no Kansas City hurler has for years. It was a win not just for Cueto or Kansas City, but for his fellow countryman Edinson Volquez, whose father tragically passed away before the start of Game 1.
In Game 5 of the Division Series against the Houston Astros, Cueto threw eight innings of magical two-run ball, retiring the last 19 batters he faced. On Wednesday night at The K, Johnny Beisbol went even better, firing a two-hit complete game to shut down the New York Mets – the best performance from a starting pitcher in the World Series since Greg Maddux’s gem for the Atlanta Braves in 1995. Cueto’s first feat kept the Royals dream alive, his second gave them a 2-0 lead in the Fall Classic, and a prime opportunity to end their 30-year wait for a world championship.
Cueto knuckled down after Luis Valbuena’s two-run dinger in the ALDS, and he mirrored that effort against Houston in his dismantling of the Mets. Only in the fourth inning did any trouble arise, and had Mike Moustakas’ throw from third to first been more on target, Cueto would have escaped with no damage. As it was, Lucas Duda’s bloop into left field landed safe and allowed New York to scratch out a run. Lesser men would have wobbled, but the only wobbling Cueto did was with his “rocking chair” wind-up – he proceeded to retire the next 15 batters, his solitary lapse came when he walked Daniel Murphy with two outs in the ninth. A night off for the bullpen added the finishing touches to a perfect night.
The Royals bats continued to stick firmly to their mantra. Making contact, getting the ball in-play and keeping the line moving. The most telling statistics from the first two games were deGrom and Matt Harvey’s strikeout count. They totalled just two apiece which prevented from blowing their adversaries away as they have all year. The Royals made them grind, and that persistence paid off.
After leaving the bases loaded in the fourth, Ned Yost’s men got straight back to work, bashing deGrom for as many runs in one inning – four – as he had conceded all postseason. Alex Gordon walked, Alex Rios singled, Alcides Escobar clobbered an RBI single, Eric Hosmer drove in two, Kendrys Morales got aboard before Moustakas drove in a fourth. Similar frenzied hitting in the eighth tacked on a further three runs and gifted closer Wade Davis the night off. A comfortable win was the exact tonic needed after the 14-inning roller coaster ride which had taken place just hours before.
Forget Cueto’s horror show in Toronto, his troubles working with catcher Salvador Perez, and all of those face-palming regular season starts that added fuel to the doomsayers’ fire. When Kansas City gave up Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed in July, this was the impact they weren’t just hoping for, but expecting. To echo Ned Yost’s words all season, the 2015 Royals are a ballclub borne entirely out of expectation.
Yet, even when the dreadlocked star was struggling on the mound, his presence radiated and aided a marked upswing in form for the Dominican Republic’s brightest young prospect, Yordano Ventura. Kansas City’s Opening Day starter endured a testing first half of the season, blighted by injury and a frustrating knack of instigating on-field fights, notably with Mike Trout. Ventura’s command was awry and his inability to knuckle down with runners on base saw his ERA balloon above 5.00. But after, the Cueto signing and a near demotion to Triple A, the 24-year-old talent began to light it up. One burgeoning ace looked to impress a bona fide ace. The result? A 9-1 finish to the season with a 3.10 ERA. It provided the Royals rotation stability and confidence while their prized asset suffered. Tie in “Steady Eddie” Volquez, one of the best off-season pick-ups, and the deadly Dominican trio was complete.
The mystery of Cueto’s tenure as Royal will have bothered him as much as anyone. He turned up and produced as expected, pitching a four-hit shutout in his first home start, but he then combusted with five successive horrendous starts. With free agency looming, his chance to escape the freefalling Cincinnati Reds for a winning team presented an opening to show the baseball world what Postseason Johnny Cueto is all about. That he is more than the man who dropped the ball after being relentlessly rattled in the 2013 National League Wild Card Game at PNC Park.
Indeed, the Blue Jays and their fans still rumbled him north of the border. Chants of “Cuueettoo, Cuueettoo” rang out, and murmurs of Toronto stealing signs left him confused. But at home, Cueto has been a different beast. Beating Jacob deGrom, the Mets ace-in-waiting, and handing Kansas City command of the World Series sent out an assertive message to all teams eyeing up a move for the 29-year-old in the off-season. When it matters most, chucking the ball to Cueto will give a side as much assurance of triumph as baseball ever can. On the road he remains an enigma, however on his own patch, he has thrived.
Yost knows this, and has used him expertly. For all of the seemingly baffling decisions which come out of the Royals dugout at times, Kansas City’s general manager has enjoyed unprecedented success in October – his 20-8 postseason record is the best-ever. Royals fans joke, but for the most part, it’s the opposition who have been “Yosted”. Even the Chiefs picked up a win when Yost was in attendance – perhaps it is destiny.
Maybe the Royals will not win the World Series. They are still two games from glory and the next three are in New York and, as ESPN will make sure you know, the last two teams to come back from two behind in the Fall Classic were from the Big Apple. However, Kansas City looks in magnificent shape, and with Ventura and the ultra-consistent Chris Young to follow, snaring baseball’s grandest prize is within touching distance.
If the Royals do take the crown, none of it would have been possible without Cueto. The late August and September waters were choppy, but once again, Dayton Moore has been vindicated. The all-in move has paid off, and the Royals faithful will remember Cueto fondly rather than fretfully. Now, it’s up to the rest of this historic Kansas City unit to finish the job. Missouri’s keenest baseball town is euphoric, excited and expectant.