Johnny Cueto pressed through a doorway in the bowels of Kauffman Stadium on Thursday afternoon, sauntering outside the Royals clubhouse. He wore a blue T-shirt and sandals, and his trademark hair was pulled back into a ponytail.
For the last two months, Cueto has struggled to find his true identity — the No. 1 starter who was supposed to anchor the Royals’ starting rotation, the confident ace who could lead a club in October. But as he sat at a microphone Thursday, just 24 hours before taking the ball against the Houston Astros in Game 2 of their American League Division Series, Cueto sounded a confident tone as he contemplated his late-summer slump. He had never experienced such failure in the big leagues, he said. The stretch tested his patience and resolve. Now he is ready to go.
“That season is over,” he said, speaking through translator Pedro Grifol, the Royals catching coach. “This is a new season. And you'll get to see what Johnny Cueto is all about.”
When the Royals acquired Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds on July 26, just days before the trade deadline, he appeared to be the missing piece for an October run. In eight seasons with the Reds, Cueto had established himself as one of the National League’s premier starters. If everything went to plan, the club expected to see Cueto taking the ball in Game 1 of an ALDS at Kauffman Stadium.
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It did not go to plan. In 13 starts with the Royals, Cueto posted a 4.76 ERA. In a five-start stretch that straddled August and September, Cueto surrendered 28 earned runs and lost the form that once made him an ace.
On Thursday, the Royals opened the ALDS with Yordano Ventura on the mound. Cueto said he did not consider it a slight, preferring to stay on regular rest before Friday’s matchup.
“(The) most important thing here is to win games,” Grifol said, speaking for Cueto. “Whether he's pitching Game 1, 2, wherever. The most important thing is to win games.”
On Friday, Cueto will take the mound against Houston veteran starter Scott Kazmir. He will face the Astros lineup for the first time this season, and he pitch in the postseason for the first time since allowing four earned runs in 3 1/3 innings for the Reds the 2013 NL Wild Card Game. On that night, Cueto could not overcome the Pirates lineup or a hostile environment in Pittsburgh. His postseason ERA ballooned to 5.19 in 8 2/3 innings over three starts.
On Friday, He will seek redemption. In this moment, Cueto believes he has overcome the issues that made him ineffective in late August and early September. In his final four starts of the regular season, Cueto allowed nine runs over 25 innings. He was closer to solid than dominating, but the Royals won two of his last three starts. His team believes there is more to come on Friday.
“We all knew we’d get it figured out by the time the playoffs started,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “And we did.”