MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Cueto rises to occasion in must-win game

Resilient Royals return to ALCS on strength of ace's gem

Cueto rises to occasion in must-win game

KANSAS CITY -- This isn't all about talent. This is also about character, both individual and collective.

Anybody can play with a lead. But the Royals can play from behind.

Shop for Royals ALCS gear

The Royals won the deciding Game 5 of their American League Division Series against the Astros at Kauffman Stadium, 7-2, on Wednesday night. What had been a close game throughout was broken wide open by Kendrys Morales' three-run homer in the eighth.

Game Date Result
Gm 1 Oct. 8 HOU 5, KC 2
Gm 2 Oct. 9 KC 5, HOU 4
Gm 3 Oct. 11 HOU 4, KC 2
Gm 4 Oct. 12 KC 9, HOU 6
Gm 5 Oct. 14 KC 7, HOU 2

In all three of their victories, the Royals came from behind. Game 4 was the biggest deal in that regard; a rally from four runs down in the eighth while facing elimination. That matched Kansas City's epic comeback against Oakland in the 2014 AL Wild Card Game. This team is not defeated by adversity. Adversity for this team is more like a warmup to the main act.

"This team's not afraid to play with its back against the wall," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "These guys don't quit."

Wednesday night, the Royals went down by two runs in the second. So you watched, and with all due respect to the young and talented Astros, you believed that the question of Kansas City's comeback was a question of when, not if.

Cueto retires 19 straight

There aren't many questions yet to be answered about the Royals, the defending AL champions, the owners of the best record in the league this season. But one outstanding question was on the table in Game 5: Which Johnny Cueto pitches for Kansas City in this one?

The answer to that one was really emphatic: The hoped-for Cueto, the one the Royals traded prized pitching prospects to get. The Cueto they thought could be a true ace, the kind of pitcher who could make the difference between going to the World Series and winning the World Series.

Perez on Cueto's performance

In the biggest game of his professional life, Cueto delivered a gem. It was even better than his line indicated.

Cueto pitched eight innings and gave up two runs on two hits, walking none and striking out eight.

With two out in the second, Houston designated hitter Evan Gattis hit a ball on which third baseman Mike Moustakas made a difficult backhanded stop. Moustakas had time to get the slow-footed Gattis, but his hurried throw was far off target and Gattis was safe. This was ruled a hit. It could have been ruled a throwing error, and in at least some other ballparks, it would have been. It was followed by a two-run homer by third baseman Luis Valbuena. At worst, Cueto should have been charged with two unearned runs.

After that, though, Cueto was untouchable, retiring the last 19 Astros he faced. How good was he?

"He was unbelievably good," said Yost. "He didn't make a bad pitch all night. That pitch Valbuena hit was a good pitch. He came in after the eighth inning and was lobbying to go back out in the ninth. And I'm like, 'Look, I've got the best reliever in the game [Wade Davis] down there, he's going to close it out.'

Yost on clinching ALDS win

"He knew the magnitude of this game, I think we all did, and he came out from the first pitch, just had everything going. Had his two-seamer, had his changeup, had his cutter. He was fantastic."

"Tonight was Johnny Cueto's night," said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. "We didn't get a baserunner after the second, is that right? He had the strike little cutter-slider thing that he throws. He threw a couple good changeups. I thought the crowd got behind him and he pitches with emotion. He rose to the occasion.

"The good version of Johnny Cueto is really tough. Hats off to him."

Cueto's performance with Kansas City since arriving in July had been mercurial. Four great starts at the beginning, followed by five truly bad starts, then four solid starts to finish the regular season. His performance in Game 2 of the ALDS was nothing special. But here in a win-or-go-home situation, Cueto reached a peak.

"There's no doubt that I knew there was some talk out there that what was wrong with Johnny Cueto," he said through an interpreter. "But today was the game that I was going to show everybody what I'm all about in big games. And that's what I did."

That's exactly what Cueto did. This game was big enough, and his performance was terrific enough, to justify the move made by general manager Dayton Moore in trading significant assets for him.

To the indomitable quality of this club, add the presence of a pitcher who has now pitched like a postseason ace. The Royals are very much alive and extremely well, and they are headed for the AL Championship Series.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.