Sweat blotted the brow of Johnny Cueto as he clambered over a railing and landed on the warning track along the first-base line at Kauffman Stadium. He had just completed running the ballpark’s steps, his ordinary exercise before a start that is anything but ordinary, Game 5 of the American League Division Series.
After a tumultuous 13 weeks, Wednesday could be the final outing of Cueto’s tenure in Kansas City. The Royals will hand him the baseball in an elimination game, the sort of scenario the organization envisioned when it acquired Cueto from the Reds in July. But the Royals do not intend to treat Cueto like an ace, given their well-stocked bullpen and Cueto’s shakiness down the stretch.
The baseball may not remain in his hands for long.
“If he’s throwing the ball good and we’re comfortable with his stuff, he’ll stay in the game,” pitching coach Dave Eiland told The Star. “If we’re not comfortable with his stuff and he’s not getting outs, he’s coming out of the game. It’s that simple. There’s no such thing as ‘rope.’ There’s no such thing as ‘feelings.’ We’re trying to win a baseball game. And we’re going to do whatever we have to do.”
In preparing for Game 5, Royals officials have charted contingency plans for an emergency in every inning. The hook for Cueto could be quick. Both Kris Medlen and Chris Young can provide multiple innings of relief. Young struck out seven in an emergency appearance in Game 1.
The rest of the bullpen is also ready. Edinson Volquez, two days removed from his Game 3 start, will be available.
Manager Ned Yost has shown little fear in the past about using relievers like Kelvin Herrera or Wade Davis for multi-inning stints. Davis threw two innings after the wild comeback in Game 4. Asked if he could throw three on Wednesday, Davis smirked. “No chance,” he said.
“Wade shouldn’t underestimate himself,” Eiland said. “He can go three.”
In an ideal scenario, of course, Cueto could provide both excellence and distance. During his time in Kansas City, his outings have lacked both qualities. He posted a 4.76 ERA in 13 starts as a Royal, including a five-start stretch with a 9.57 ERA that Cueto blamed, in part, on the defensive positioning of Salvador Perez.
Cueto survived six innings against Houston in Game 2. Yet his performance invited concern. The Astros taxed him for four runs in the first three innings. Their barrage pressed Cueto into the ropes. He arrived there, to some observers, due to timidity with his fastball and allowing the hitters to get ahead in the count.
“Sometimes guys try to be too perfect and make that perfect pitch, or throw all their pitches to the black, or go to the edges too soon,” Eiland said. “You’ve got to attack their hitters and make them swing the bat.”
He added, “He just has to stay on the attack and not pitch defensively.”
The Royals have preached this message to Cueto since he began his trials in August. To both Kansas City officials and rival scouts, Cueto appeared to exhibit a lack of confidence during those five miserable starts. He exaggerated his delivery to manufacture additional velocity on fastballs or spin on offspeed pitches. The results were disastrous.
Cueto experienced better results during his final four games, after Perez adjusted himself behind the plate to meet Cueto’s liking. Yet Cueto has still damaged his profile as he heads into free agency. Rival executives suggest the struggle in Kansas City has cost Cueto millions, and Cueto on Tuesday admitted the uncertainty of the coming winter has affected him.
“He’s not going to lie, at times it’s been very difficult to take that out of his mind,” said catching coach Pedro Grifol, translating for Cueto. “But the fact of the matter is he’s got to focus on pitching here and performing for this club and this organization. And thank God the most important thing is that he’s — he feels good, he’s healthy, and that gives him an opportunity to have success.”
Despite his words, Cueto has not quieted the discussion outside the Kansas City organization about the health of his arm. Both the Royals and Cueto insist he is healthy. His velocity has not exhibited a noticeable dip, but he has struggled more with command than he did in Cincinnati.
Cueto arrived as a hired gun, deemed the missing piece in Kansas City’s starting rotation. He has been deferential to the Royals, which explained his lengthy silence regarding his frustration with Perez’s positioning. But he also has refused to alter his pitching schedule to work on short rest. That is why Yordano Ventura, not Cueto, started Game 1 and Game 4.
Cueto prefers not to conduct interviews in English, so his level of introspection with the press is limited. But he referred to Wednesday’s outing, as he did before Game 2, as “his opportunity to show everybody what he’s capable of,” Grifol said.
Cueto will get his chance in Game 5. But he must display his mettle from the start. Otherwise, the Royals will remove the ball from his hands.
“It’s go time,” Eiland said. “We’re going to do whatever we have to do, use whoever we have to use.”