How the bemoaned Johnny Cueto willed the Royals to the ALCS

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On the morning of the biggest game of his life, Johnny Cueto made a promise to his family and friends. Enough of the pussyfooting, the passivity, the willful restraint. He was Johnny F'ing Cueto, and he was going to take the baseball and show the Houston Astros just how badly they erred by not closing out the Kansas City Royals when they had the chance.

Every pitcher wants to believe, of course, that he's capable of predestiny, of guiding himself to greatness through faith and conviction and whatever mental gymnastics it takes. And to do this, Cueto vowed, he was going to throw as hard as he could from the first pitch. No more first-inning procrastination, starting with fastballs at 91 and 89 and 90 and 91 and 90 miles per hour, like he had his last five starts. The Astros were going to see why the Royals traded for him. The Royals were going to see why they traded for him.

Johnny Cueto celebrates on the field after his team's 7-2 ALDS Game 5 win over the Astros. (AP)
Johnny Cueto celebrates on the field after his team's 7-2 ALDS Game 5 win over the Astros. (AP)

And out he came, 92 mph and then 93 and finishing the first inning at 94 and climbing later to 95 and even 96, the velocity a bellwether for the rest of the evening. By the end, the crowd at Kauffman Stadium was chanting his name and the Royals were mimicking his performance with a similar bravura and the Astros were foundering amid it all. Kansas City's 7-2 victory in the deciding Game 5 of the division series showcased everything that makes the Royals a more-than-worthy opponent for the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series, a scary amalgamation of power and speed and defense and, with Cueto looking like he looked, pitching.

Before the game, Cueto said, he felt "something magic," and it manifested itself in historic fashion. After Houston's Luis Valbuena tattooed a two-run home run in the second inning, Cueto retired 19 consecutive batters, the longest run to end a start in an AL playoff game since Don Larsen's perfect game in 1954. Gone, by the end, were the groans that accompanied Cueto over the last two months as he morphed from savior upon his arrival from Cincinnati in a July trade to pariah whose issues made his start in Wednesday's do-or-die game an iffy proposition.

"He showed up in the biggest moment," Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "For me, that erases everything else."

Baseball offers redemption like no other sport, its games a daily opportunity to right past wrongs. The Astros fumbled their chance at it after blowing a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning of Game 4. And not only did Cueto compensate for his mediocrity and outfielder Alex Rios render moot a year of middling play with a two-run go-ahead double in the fifth inning that gave Kansas City a 3-2 lead it wouldn't cede, the Royals themselves earned another chance to do what they couldn't last year: win the franchise's first World Series since 1985 after a loss in the seventh game last season.

"I haven't gotten over Game 7 last year," Royals owner David Glass said. "I'm still struggling with that. This year we believed we had a chance to do it and do it right and fix what we didn't get done last year. We collectively said, 'Let's go for it.' "

At the forefront of that push was Cueto, the 29-year-old Dominican whose free-agent season was going swimmingly until he joined Kansas City. Every fifth day Cueto looked no better than a mid-rotation starter, home runs soaring often and his comportment more that of someone searching for something than the cocksure ace for whom the Royals believed they'd traded. The deadline deals for Cueto and second baseman Ben Zobrist were supposed to fortify the Royals. Zobrist held up his end. The Royals worried they'd keep waiting until their season was over for Cueto to do the same.

Johnny Cueto allowed just two hits in an eight-inning gem on Wednesday. (AP)
Johnny Cueto allowed just two hits in an eight-inning gem on Wednesday. (AP)

And then came Wednesday, Valbuena's home run the lone scar in a gem. Eiland said he saw a look in Cueto's eyes during a flat-ground session Tuesday and the type of finish on his delivery that had been missing since he joined the Royals. This was the old Cueto, the good Cueto, the sort for whom teams earlier this year were clamoring to lavish with more than $100 million come the winter.

When Cueto struck out Astros cleanup hitter Colby Rasmus, he yelled in Spanish: "Hit it!" He knew Rasmus couldn't. None of the Astros could, his mixture of fastballs and changeups and cutters bewitching, his command of each beguiling. The Cueto who gave up four runs in the series' second game, who faltered in the 2013 National League wild-card game, transformed into someone who dared the Astros to hit him knowing they couldn't.

"It was just a matter of time," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.

Moore had given up three young, hard-throwing left-handed pitchers to rent Cueto with nights like this in mind. Game 5 made him look like a player-procurement savant, with Cueto being J.F. Cueto and Zobrist making a leaping catch and free-agent acquisition Rios stepping up and another big free-agent pickup, Kendrys Morales, gut-shotting the upstart Astros with a three-run home run in the eighth inning off presumable Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, whom Houston manager A.J. Hinch inserted in a desperation move.

"He threw me two good breaking pitches that I should've hit out and I missed 'em," Morales said. "The third one I didn't miss."

Neither did his teammates, the Royals' march back to their second ALCS full of bumps in the road that smoothed out in Game 5. Against the protestations of Cueto, manager Ned Yost lifted him before the ninth inning to let closer Wade Davis finish off the Astros, which he did summarily. Not before the crowd that had turned on Cueto in previous weeks did a 180 and serenaded him with a worthy chant. "Joh-nny Cue-to!" it yelled. "Joh-nny Cue-to!"

"Tonight," Hinch said, "was Johnny Cueto's night."

Royals players celebrate on the field after their 7-2 win in Game 5 of their ALDS series with the Astros. (AP)
Royals players celebrate on the field after their 7-2 win in Game 5 of their ALDS series with the Astros. (AP)

It was Johnny Cueto's, yes, and it was the Kansas City Royals', too, and it was that of the city that long ago recognized giving up on this team is folly. The Royals seem to play their best from behind, coming back in each of the three division series victories and preparing to host a Blue Jays team with whom they tussled the last time they saw in August.

The Royals then were the best team in the AL, a title they nearly frittered away until a final-week push. The Blue Jays accordingly will travel here Thursday and play Game 1 Friday, facing Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura and Cueto in the first three games after themselves escaping from near-defeat with a comeback win against Texas on Wednesday.

Kansas City didn't slither out of its Game 5 with nearly as much trouble. This was vintage Royals, all-around dominance from a team that inspires high praise from the franchise's icon.

"They were good last year," George Brett said. "But they're better."

It's easy to claim as much on a night like Wednesday, though Brett isn't just playing horn-tooting games. The Royals are better, especially when Johnny Cueto is Johnny Cueto, a man who made a promise and kept it when the team that believed in him and the city that yearned to needed it most.

More MLB coverage:

What to Read Next