Fifteen days before, the announcement of Johnny Cueto’s acquisition on the Kauffman Stadium scoreboard had prompted booming applause over the mere idea of the void he might fill for the Royals.
But when he at last materialized here in person for his first home start as a Royal on Monday (on what was being declared #cuetoday on Twitter), Cueto somehow exceeded the anticipation.
In the process of unfurling a four-hit, complete-game shutout, Cueto demonstrated he possesses a dimension the team hasn’t had amid its revival the last two years.
“Every time Johnny steps on the mound,” manager Ned Yost said, “(the Royals) know they’ve got an outstanding chance of winning that game.”
So this is what a true No. 1 starter looks like — distinct as that look might be with so many unique flourishes: the flowing dreadlocks and varying paces and placements of deliveries; the whirling away from the plate and shoulder shimmies.
This was a mesmerizing performance from the moment Cueto took the mound before a buzzing crowd and struck out Anthony Gose to the end of the 4-0 victory over Detroit, the Royals’ first nine-inning complete game of the season.
When Cueto came back out for the ninth, the crowd of 36,000-plus was “pretty whipped up,” as Yost put it, and before inning’s end it was chanting, “Let’s Go, Cueto.”
This outing, and the response to it, was the type of dynamic energy even James Shields couldn’t quite generate as he helped reshape the Royals’ future from the top of the rotation.
Shields set a crucial tone with pluck and consistency and leadership in the clubhouse, attributes that combined to be pivotal in jump-starting them the last two seasons.
But his recent career numbers (he hasn’t had an ERA below 3.00 since 2011) are a tier less-imposing than those of Cueto, who on Monday improved on his 2.69 ERA this season as he moves toward his fifth straight sub-3.00 ERA season.
In part because of the improbability of the Royals being able to sign Cueto after this season, he ultimately will be measured by what they do in the postseason that he was obtained to anchor.
Even so, his pitching on Monday was significant in itself in many ways.
For one thing, it was a statement of what Cueto is capable of on any given night — apparently particularly so when he pitches at home.
While this was his first game at Kauffman as a Royal, the result tracked similarly to what he’d pulled off routinely in the recent past for the Reds at The Great American Ballpark.
In his last 31 starts there since the beginning of the 2013 season, Cueto had gone 18-5 with a 1.78 ERA.
Imagine what that sort of juice, and his quick work, does for those playing with and behind him.
“It’s fun to watch; it really keeps you in the game,” said first baseman Eric Hosmer, alluding to both Cueto’s results and the means to it via the “leg-kick-or-whatever-you-call-it motion.”
“It’s just not a comfortable at-bat,” he said.
Meanwhile, it also provided a nearly unprecedented (this season) game off for the bullpen, which had been overtaxed enough lately that Yost has been left with less than a full arsenal for the past few days.
That’s another night-in, night-out benefit to Cueto, who like teammate Edinson Volquez typically pitches into the seventh inning.
Moreover, Cueto’s arrival doesn’t just give the Royals a command presence atop the rotation.
It more properly recasts the rest of the rotation, making Volquez a dynamic No. 2 and Danny Duffy a solid No. 3 as you ponder a playoff rotation, and maybe there is a contagious element to that, too.
To Yost, who long coached with Atlanta when the Braves had a wealth of great starting pitching, the Cueto effect could make for ripples that “everybody feeds off” in trying to match that excellence.
Then there’s the matter of Cueto’s potential impact on would-be ace Yordano Ventura, the opening day starter whose season has been ltumultuous.
It’s easy to assume that Ventura could be influenced by Cueto, a fellow Dominican, and Ventura seemed to be watching Cueto closely from the bench on Monday.
It remains to be seen, of course, what will be absorbed by Ventura, who is scheduled to start Tuesday against Detroit.
But if he was as engrossed as he should have been Monday, he would have witnessed the benefits of working ahead in the count, controlling off-speed pitches and staying cool with runners on base, especially when it was beyond his control.
In the second inning, J.D. Martinez doubled in the second on a ball that appeared more playable than right fielder Alex Rios made it.
That’s the sort of thing that has made Ventura unravel at times this season, and it left Cueto absolutely unfazed.
As usual: batters came into the game hitting .186 against him with runners in scoring position.
He induced Nick Castellanos to fly out and Jefry Marte to ground out to him, and that was pretty well that for the Tigers.
None of this guarantees that the Royals are destined to win the World Series or even get back to it.
But it sure validates the perception that their greatest need has been remedied — and then some — with an imposing performance.
“That’s what your ace does,” Hosmer said.