The shimmy was back Thursday night as Johnny Cueto helped pitch the Royals to their first division title in 30 years.
One start removed from a five-game losing streak in which he posted nearly a 10.00 ERA, Cueto threw a 104-pitch, seven-inning outing in which he held the Seattle Mariners at bay until the Royals pulled ahead in the bottom of the sixth and eventually won 10-4.
Cueto allowed seven hits and three runs while walking two and striking out five. For the first time in five starts, Cueto didn’t allow a run in the first inning. But there was still drama.
On the second pitch, Seattle’s Ketel Marte softly bounced a chopper to the right of the pitcher’s mound. Cueto ambled to the ball but it bounced out of his glove. While in stride, as the ball rebounded off the grass, Cueto could not clasp it with his bare hand and fell on his face. He lay on the grass with his arms and legs extended as Marte ran safely to first base for a single.
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After pausing for a visit from catcher Sal Perez, Cueto issued a four-pitch walk to Kyle Seager.
It got worse.
Royals trainer Nick Kenney came out to the mound. Cueto kicked his left leg as Kenney examined his calf. The Royals’ bullpen beyond left field started to stir. But after a few warmup pitches, Cueto returned to the mound and cheers from the crowd at Kauffman Stadium.
Cueto’s next pitch to Nelson Cruz registered 93 mph. Cruz filed out to center and Cueto got Robinson Cano to ground into a double play.
In the first inning of Cueto’s last four starts, all Royals losses, he allowed eight runs with opponents batting .591, 13 for 22. On Thursday, it was no runs and one hit in three Mariners at-bats.
A run was scored in the second inning, instead, erasing a 1-0 Royals lead. Mark Trumbo reached out for an opposite-field single to right with one out and after a Logan Morrison flyout to right, Cueto fell behind 3-1 to Brad Miller, who drove a 90 mph fastball into the left-field corner for a RBI double.
Cueto closed out the third inning with back-to-back strikeouts of Seager and Cruz and added some flair. The 94 mph fastball that fanned Cruz was delivered from a motion that included a pause at the top of Cueto’s delivery in which he shifted his shoulders up and down before firing to the plate.
The shimmy looked to be premature, however. Cueto gave up three straight hits to open the fourth and the Mariners took a 3-2 lead. Cano drove a ball through the hole in short, Seth Smith doubled down the left-field line and Trumbo pulled a low liner past Mike Moustakas’ glove at third for a two-run double.
Cueto rebounded in the fifth after walking Marte to start the inning, striking out Cano to end the frame after inducing flyouts by Seager and Cruz. Seth Smith found a hole through a shifted infield in right leading off the sixth, but Cueto again got out of it unscathed.
After Lorenzo Cain’s two-run single broke a 3-3 tie, Cueto came back out for the seventh and efficiently worked a 1-2-3 inning.
In his last start before Thursday, Cueto bounced back from a five-game losing streak on Sept. 18 at Detroit, but didn’t get a decision after the Royals lost 5-4 in 12 innings. Cueto went seven innings, his longest outing since throwing eight in an Aug. 15 victory over the Angels, and allowed eight hits and two runs.
During his career-worst five-game losing streak, Cueto posted a 9.57 ERA in 26 1/3 innings, allowing 48 hits and eight home runs while striking out 20 and walking four. In Cueto’s other six starts for the Royals, he’s 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA in 44 innings, allowing 39 hits and one home run and striking out 30 while walking seven.