By late Friday evening, after Johnny Cueto had receded to a quiet perch in the Royals’ dugout, and after a late-inning comeback had commenced, Royals manager Ned Yost turned toward Dave Eland, the club’s pitching coach of four seasons.
The discussion point: Johnny Cueto, the mercurial starter who had walked the tight-rope in the early innings against the Astros before grinding through the sixth against the Houston Astros.
“I looked at Dave and said: ‘What do you think of his outing?’” Yost would say. “Dave said he pitched good enough to win. I said I agree with this.”
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The Royals’ dramatic partnership with Cueto survived another six innings Friday in the Royals’ 5-4 victory in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. In six innings, Cueto allowed four runs and seven hits while issuing three walks.
When the outing began, he appeared headed for imminent disaster. When he exited after the top of the sixth, his line had blurred toward something more respectable.
“He settled down a little bit,” said teammate and fellow pitcher Edinson Volquez, who watched nervously from the dugout.
After surrendering a solo homer to Houston’s Colby Rasmus in the top of the third, Cueto found a groove, retiring eight straight and working scoreless innings in the fourth, fifth and sixth. His resiliency bought time for the Kansas City offense, and the Royals’ hitters repaid the favor, rescuing him from a painful loss in his first postseason start in two seasons.
“He finished strong,” Royals catcher Salvador Perez said.
This was almost a nuclear scenario. In the top of the first, Rasmus raked a double to deep right field, scoring George Springer from first. In the second inning, Cueto loaded the bases with nobody out, allowing a leadoff single before issuing another walk. When Houston’s Jake Marisnick dropped a bunt down the third-base line, Cueto pounced toward the line and motioned toward third as Mike Moustakas fielded the ball. Moustakas looked to third, hoping to see Alcides Escobar covering the bag, and the brief hesitation proved costly.
“By the time I looked back, Marisnick was already at first base,” Moustakas said. “It was just a mental error on my part.”
Cueto coaxed a harmless fly ball from Jose Altuve, but Springer followed with a soft single to left, stretching Houston’s lead to 3-0 after two innings.
Bad luck? Perhaps. But as the flood of boos cascaded across Kauffman Stadium, Cueto was still laboring to find the zone on a consistent basis.
“At the beginning, he didn’t feel as strong,” said Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol, who translated for Cueto. “But then he was able to kind of settle down and locate. And obviously some of the balls that they hit fell [in]. But he battled through it and finished strong.”
Hours earlier, on an overcast afternoon, Cueto had arrived at Kauffman Stadium and stepped into an elevator at just after 12:47 p.m, two hours before first pitch. He wore jeans and a dark T-shirt and toted dress shirts and luggage, preparing for a flight to Houston after the game.
First, though, Cueto would toe the rubber in a critical postseason moment. If the Royals lost on Friday, they would head to Houston trailing 2-0, with ace Astros Dallas Keuchel looming in Game 3.
This was the reason the Royals had zeroed in on Cueto before the trade deadline in July, the reason the club parted with three left-handed pitching prospects in exchange for three months of work. This was the reason Cueto had come to Kansas City.
Cueto would say he understood the importance of this start. He insisted he did not feel any pressure.
“He knows the magnitude of the trade and that’s why he was brought here,” Grifol said, translating for Cueto. “He takes a lot of pride in his stuff and a lot of pride helping this club win.”
When his day was over, he had thrown 103 pitches and retired 12 of the last 14 batters he faced. He had finished with five strikeouts. Yost would say Cueto’s mistakes could be counted on one hand.
“The second inning,” Yost said, “it was an array of broken bats and jammed shots and a bunt that, you know, we couldn’t make a play on, and a walk. So I thought he was throwing the ball fine. He finally really got dialed in after the third inning and kept us right there through six.”
Now the series heads to Houston, and Cueto will wait for his next assignment. He may have thrown his last pitch for the Royals. He could be lined up to start Game 1 of the American League Championship Series or a potential Game 5 back here in Kansas City on Wednesday.
As Cueto stood at his locker after the game, he considered the scenarios. But for the moment, there was one prevailing feeling: relief.
“It was a huge game,” Cueto said through Grifol. “Obviously, you don’t want to go down 0-2 and head to Houston, but thank god we were able to pull this one out.”