Royals

Royals beat Astros 7-2, advance to ALCS

The Royals celebrated after defeating the Houston Astros 7-2 in Game 5 of their American League Division Series on Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals advance to the American League Championship Series, where they will play the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Royals celebrated after defeating the Houston Astros 7-2 in Game 5 of their American League Division Series on Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals advance to the American League Championship Series, where they will play the Toronto Blue Jays. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Johnny Cueto could not take a step without bumping into a new best friend, a Royals teammate or a spouse or a parent or a total stranger in search of a photo with him. A pair of goggles on his head, a T-shirt commemorating advancement to the American League Championship Series across his chest, Cueto obliged all in his path. His smile shined bright enough to light up the highway outside Kauffman Stadium.

Cueto milled around the diamond soon after completing an eight-inning thrashing of the Houston Astros to capture Game 5 and the American League Division Series with a 7-2 victory. He slithered through the on-field throng and approached the dugout. When he reached the steps, he raised his hands above his head, and the masses in the stands all shrieked with joy.

The image fit the night for Cueto, who behaved like a maestro all evening, able to conduct the baseball in whatever direction he intended it to go. Two years ago, Cueto heard his name spat in derision as a visiting player during a playoff game in Pittsburgh. During Wednesday’s eighth inning, his name rang out across a sold-out ballpark, each syllable coated with a love and trust earned on this night.

“He showed up,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He showed up and came up big. He did exactly what we got him to do. He showed up in the biggest moment, and for me, that erases everything else.”

Maligned for so much of his Kansas City tenure, Cueto strapped the rest of the Royals to his back across eight innings. He attacked Houston batters with his fastball, baffled them with his changeup and delivered on the promise elicited by his arrival from Cincinnati in late July. He retired the last 19 batters he faced after giving up a two-run homer to Luis Valbuena in the second.

Cueto struck out eight as the Royals reached the ALCS for the second season in a row. They will play host the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 1 at at 7:07 p.m. Friday. Edinson Volquez is expected to start, facing the Blue Jays for the first time since he declared superstar Josh Donaldson behaved like a “baby” during a game in August.

Granted new life by a frenetic comeback in Game 4, the Royals outlasted the Astros across five harrowing games. Houston operated in the driver’s seat for much of this series. Yet Kansas City displayed enough mettle, and enough timely hitting, to extend its season. Manager Ned Yost grabbed Astros manager A.J. Hinch after the game to compliment him.

“I told him, man, you’ve got a team that’s going to be good for years to come,” Yost said. “And what they accomplished this year I thought was special.”

As Cueto glimmered on the mound, his teammates punched through the decaying foundation of the Astros pitching staff. Alex Rios smacked a two-run double and came around to score during a go-ahead, three-run rally in the fifth. The defense shined through the evening: Ben Zobrist leapt to snag a liner at second base; Alex Gordon slid on his back to catch a ball in foul territory.

In the eighth, Kendrys Morales vanquished Houston’s ace, Dallas Keuchel, who appeared in relief. Morales boomed a three-run homer. He spread his arms wide as he rounded first base. The dugout and the ballpark erupted as one. Morales rolled his shoulders and slapped his fingers across his neck when he reached the plate, repeating the gesture from Astros pitcher Lance McCullers that infuriated the Royals in Game 4.

Yet the spotlight still belonged to Cueto. His performance captivated those around him in Wednesday’s champagne celebration. The tenor was subdued, a performance befitting a club that intends for two more booze-soaked bashes. But the button-down shirt of owner David Glass was soaked as he discussed the highest-profile midseason addition ever made during his tenure as owner.

“Can you imagine the pressure on that kid tonight, to go out there and perform and win the game?” Glass said. “But he stepped up, and he was awesome.”

All around the room sprayed streams OF Budweiser, Ten Bucks Sweet Spumante and Freixenet Sparkling Cordon Brut. Eric Hosmer embraced Mike Moustakas and Jonny Gomes amid the party. “Hurts so good,” he said, before settling onto the matter of Cueto.

“That’s the guy we went out and got at the deadline,” Hosmer said.

The Royals spent weeks waiting for this version of Cueto to arrive. He combusted during a five-start stretch in August and September. Those outings raised concerns about both his health and his confidence. He showed improvement after defensive adjustments from catcher Salvador Perez, but still he displayed shakiness. He gave up four runs in six innings in Game 2.

Kansas City officials diminished their expectations for this start. With contingency plans written up for an emergency every inning, the Royals were willing remove Cueto early. But Cueto behaved as if the entire evening belonged to him.

He watched from the dugout during Game 4’s eighth-inning surge — a game he avoided by declining to pitch on short rest — and said he felt inspired by his teammates. The sight of Moustakas urging the group not to let their season end spoke to Cueto.

“If we can come back and win this game,” he thought to himself, “I’ll take care of business in Game 5.”

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During a throwing session on Tuesday, Eiland noticed an intensity blazing in Cueto’s eyes that he had not seen before. In the morning before the game, Cueto told his agent, Bryce Dixon, he intended to pitch with maximum effort from the first pitch. He told his close friend Volquez how strong he felt.

“As soon as he woke up, he felt something magic,” said catching coach Pedro Grifol, who translated for Cueto. “This was Game 5, and he had to show up for everybody, for his team and the fans.”

Kauffman Stadium pulsated after a stirring pregame tribute to Larry Leggio and John Mesh, the two Kansas City firefighters killed during a building collapse on Monday. Cueto followed up with a scoreless, three-batter inning in the top of the first.

The noise decreased in the second. Evan Gattis pulled a fastball down the third base line. Moustakas gloved it, but his momentum carried him over the line. His throw to first pulled Hosmer off the bag. Hosmer swung his glove to tag Gattis only to lose control of the ball.

The two-out single proved costly. On the next pitch, Valbuena hammered a 94-mph fastball into the Astros bullpen.

“It wasn’t that bad of a pitch,” Eiland said. “It should have been up another six or eight inches. It was down just enough for him to get extended on it. Right pitch, he missed by just a few inches.”

Cueto reclaimed his rhythm soon after. He whiffed George Springer with a changeup to end the third inning. His fastball velocity touched 96 mph when he struck out Carlos Gomez in the fourth. Another changeup fooled Chris Carter for the last out of the fifth.

Collin McHugh was Cueto’s counterpart on the mound. In Game 1, he limited the Royals to two runs and four hits in six innings. He began Game 5 in much the same fashion. McHugh does not possess starling velocity or one vicious offspeed pitch. He relies upon upsetting the timing of his opponents. “McHugh — man, he’s good,” Yost said.

The Royals played into this trap at the start. The Astros turned two double plays in the first three innings. Kansas City required some good fortune to score its first run.

With one out in the fourth, Lorenzo Cain hacked at a low fastball and smacked a cue shot into right field. His teammates ribbed him as he ran down the line. Cain broke for second on a full-count cutter, which Hosmer dumped into center for a single. Gomez lost his footing as he retrieved the baseball. Cain sprinted home.

McHugh survived flurries of hard contact until the fifth. He hit Perez with a full-count curveball. Gordon one-hopped a ground-rule double on a pitiable, belt-high cutter. Hinch fetched McHugh and inserted Mike Fiers, a starter who had not pitched since Sept. 29.

The decision backfired. Rios punched a curveball down the third-base line. The ball skipped over the bag and eluded Valbuena’s glove. The ballpark came unglued as Perez and Gordon reached home. At second base, Rios unfurled a tremendous fist pump, his most public display of fire as a Royal.

“He’s more of a laid-back guy,” Cain said. “But to get some emotion out of him right there, I love it. I love to see it. He came through in a huge way.”

Alcides Escobar bunted Rios over to third base. Zobrist brought him home with a flyball to right. A mass of Royals greeted Rios as he reached the dugout. More raucous celebrations would soon follow.

Cueto commanded the attention during the final innings. The crowd showered him with applause when he ran back out for the sixth and the seventh and the eighth. Cueto treated the noise like fuel. He completed the sixth in five pitches. His fastball sat at 94 mph in the seventh. He netted a pair of weak grounders to complete the eighth.

As the Royals hounded Keuchel in the eighth, Wade Davis warmed up in the bullpen. Cueto pressed Eiland to let him pitch the ninth. But since Davis was already on his feet, Yost wanted to use him in the game. So Cueto pressed himself against the dugout railing as Davis ripped through the last three outs.

Inside the clubhouse afterward, Cueto posed for pictures with Volquez and Yordano Ventura, his fellow Dominicans. He sprayed bubbly around the room. When he returned to the diamond, he found his family and his agent.

Dixon handed Cueto an iPhone with a FaceTime request. On the other end was Brayan Pena, Cueto’s former catcher in Cincinnati. Cueto thumped his fist across his heart as he spoke to his friend. He had shown this city — and shown a baseball industry that doubted him — what he could do.

“That’s why we got him, to pitch games like tonight, and he showed up big for us,” Eiland said.

American League Division Series Game 5

Royals 7, Astros 2

Houston

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

Altuve 2b

4

0

0

0

0

0

.136

Springer rf

4

0

0

0

0

2

.211

Correa ss

3

0

0

0

0

0

.350

Col.Rasmus lf

3

0

0

0

0

3

.429

C.Gomez cf

3

0

0

0

0

1

.250

Gattis dh

3

1

1

0

0

1

.211

Valbuena 3b

3

1

1

2

0

0

.154

Carter 1b

3

0

0

0

0

1

.294

J.Castro c

2

0

0

0

0

0

.071

a-Tucker ph

1

0

0

0

0

1

.000

Totals

29

2

2

2

0

9

 

Kansas City

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

A.Escobar ss

3

1

1

0

0

0

.286

Zobrist 2b

2

0

0

1

1

1

.333

L.Cain cf

3

2

1

0

1

0

.250

Hosmer 1b

4

0

1

1

0

0

.190

K.Morales dh

4

1

1

3

0

0

.263

Moustakas 3b

4

0

0

0

0

0

.111

S.Perez c

2

1

1

0

0

0

.286

A.Gordon lf

3

1

1

0

0

1

.235

Rios rf

3

1

2

2

0

1

.286

Orlando rf

0

0

0

0

0

0

.000

Totals

28

7

8

7

2

3

 

Houston

020

000

000

2

2

0

Kansas City

000

130

03x

7

8

0

a-struck out for J.Castro in the 9th.

LOB: Houston 0, Kansas City 2. 2B: A.Escobar (1), A.Gordon (1), Rios (2). HR: Valbuena (1), off Cueto; K.Morales (3), off Keuchel. RBIs: Valbuena 2 (2), Zobrist (2), Hosmer (5), K.Morales 3 (6), Rios 2 (2). S: A.Escobar. SF: Zobrist.

RISP: Houston 0 for 0; Kansas City 2 for 4. GIDP: L.Cain, A.Gordon. DP: Houston 2 (Valbuena, Altuve, Carter), (Valbuena, Correa, Carter).

Houston

IP

H

R

ER

W

K

ERA

McHugh L, 1-1

4

5

3

3

1

1

4.50

Fiers

1

1

1

1

0

0

9.00

Sipp

1 2/3

0

0

0

0

1

0.00

Neshek

 1/3

0

0

0

0

1

0.00

Keuchel

1

2

3

3

1

0

4.50

Kansas City

IP

H

R

ER

W

K

ERA

Cueto W, 1-0

8

2

2

2

0

8

3.86

W.Davis

1

0

0

0

0

1

0.00

McHugh pitched to 2 batters in the 5th.

Inherited runners-scored: Fiers 2-2. IW: off Keuchel (L.Cain). HBP: by McHugh (S.Perez).

Umpires: Home, Gerry Davis; First, Todd Tichenor; Second, Lance Barksdale; Third, Angel Hernandez; Left, Mike Everitt; Right, Ron Kulpa. Time: 2:42. Att: 40,566.

Andy McCullough, 816-234-4370, @McCulloughStar

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