Despite up-and-down opening to KC tenure, righty proving to be big-game pitcher team needed
By Mike Bauman
KANSAS CITY -- This was Johnny Cueto as advertised, as needed, as fervently hoped for by the Kansas City Royals.
Cueto's short tenure with the Royals has been mercurial, up and down, erratic, if you like. But Wednesday night in Game 2 of the World Series against the New York Mets, he was the ace the Royals believed they had traded for before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Matched against Jacob deGrom, the best starter the pitching-rich Mets have, Cueto pitched a complete game, giving up one run on just two hits, walking three and striking out four. The Royals were shut out for the first four innings, but they figured out deGrom in the fifth and won going away, 7-1, to take a 2-0 lead in the Series.
Cueto pitched like an ace, like someone who could make the difference between being in the World Series and winning the World Series. It was a performance combining skill and joy. When Cueto left the field after the eighth inning, he seemed to dance to the dugout. When he came out for the ninth, a packed house at Kauffman Stadium chanted his name.
"Tonight was everything we expected Johnny to be," said Kansas City manager Ned Yost. "He was on the attack. He kept the ball down. He changed speeds. It was just a spectacular performance by him."
The only run scored off Cueto was officially earned. But in reality, it was more like semi-earned. It came after the Royals failed to complete what should have been an inning-ending double play in the fourth. But Cueto held the fort until Kansas City's offense could get going against deGrom, when a parade of singles produced four runs in the fifth.
This was the good Cueto. Given the circumstances, it would not be a stretch to say that this was even the great Cueto. But this was not always the Cueto the Royals have had over the past three months.
Cueto was obtained from the Cincinnati Reds on July 26 for three prized pitching prospects. The righty started out with four superior starts, but then had five starts that were distinctly sub-standard. Cueto closed the regular season with four starts that were in the reasonably effective category.
In the postseason, Cueto pitched adequately in Game 2 of the American League Division Series against Houston, receiving no decision in a game the Royals won. But in the decisive Game 5 of that series, he pitched brilliantly, giving up two runs on two hits with no walks and eight strikeouts in a 7-2 Kansas City victory.
Having achieved the desired level of postseason greatness, hopes were understandably high for Cueto's next start, in Game 3 of the AL Championship Series against the Blue Jays in Toronto. But Cueto gave up eight earned runs in two-plus innings. The questions about which Johnny Cueto the Royals actually had were once again front and center.
In arranging Kansas City's rotation for the World Series, Yost and his coaching staff calculated, correctly, that Cueto was more comfortable pitching at home.
"I felt Johnny thrives in this environment and he's comfortable in this park," Yost said. "He loves our fans. He feeds off their energy. I just felt very, very strongly that he was going to put up a great performance, and he did."
Cueto's overall performance with the Royals has not been great, but when it has mattered most, he has delivered in two out of three postseason opportunities.
"I mean, his postseason, he's had one bad start and two tremendous starts," Yost said.
With this performance, Cueto put himself in the company of some postseason greats. He became the first AL pitcher to toss a complete game in the World Series since Jack Morris did so for the Twins against the Braves in Game 7 of the 1991 Fall Classic. Cueto became the first pitcher to throw at least nine innings and permit no more than two hits in the World Series since Greg Maddux did that for the Braves against the Indians in Game 1 of the 1995 Series.
This was precisely who general manager Dayton Moore and his staff thought Cueto could be. It was also who Cueto thought he could be.
"That's what they brought me here for was to help win a World Series," Cueto said, through his interpreter, Royals coach Pedro Grifol. "And that's what I've worked for, and I dedicate this type of outing to my peers, to the organization, to the staff and everyone involved."
The Mets got the picture as well.
"You saw it even in the last inning, still changing speeds, throwing strikes, using his changeup, pitching to both sides of the plate," said Mets manager Terry Collins. "Very effective pitching in, all the windups, all the different deliveries. It throws your timing off.
"And he's pitched great here. We've just got to worry about making some adjustments in our lineup to start getting some hits. He's good. That's why they got him."
A Game 2 of a World Series was exactly why the Royals got Johnny Cueto. They may have to ask him to be great one more time before this Series ends.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.