On the morning before his last start, Johnny Cueto acted like he was clairvoyant. He told Edinson Volquez how strong he felt. He informed his agent he intended to throw with maximum effort from the first pitch onward. Even manager Ned Yost noticed how Cueto winked at him upon his arrival in the Royals clubhouse.
“From the first pitch on, he was on the attack with his best stuff,” Yost said. “He was going to go out for as long as he could.”
The confidence and increased fastball velocity led to the pinnacle of Cueto’s brief career as a Royal, an eight-inning masterpiece to guide his team to a clinching victory in the American League Division Series over the Astros. The schedule in Game 5 did not include a tomorrow, a factor that played into Cueto’s decision to exert himself at the outset.
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Now he returns to the mound with a slightly altered set of circumstances. Kansas City owns a two-game advantage over the Blue Jays heading into Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. The Royals held Toronto, owners of the best offense in baseball, to only three runs across the past 18 innings.
The rotation now turns to Cueto. He stressed he intended to replicate his performance from Game 5, which flowed from a time of desperation. No longer are times dire, but Cueto insisted he could not think that way.
“Game 5 was a decisive game,” said Cueto, who received translation during a press conference on Sunday at Rogers Centre from catching coach Pedro Grifol. “You win, you keep going. You lose, you go home. And my mentality was I’m going to give everything I’ve got as long as I can. And this game is very similar.”
Facing Toronto, even a two-game lead cannot be considered safe. The Blue Jays erased a similar deficit against Texas in the American League Division Series. The Royals will start Chris Young in Game 4, trusting him over Kris Medlen, who has not pitched in a game since Oct. 1.
In the past, Young has suppressed Blue Jays stars like Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki. But he yields fly balls and will be pitching inside the launching pad of Rogers Centre. So Cueto’s outing serves as a hinge upon which the series could swing.
“We’ve said it before, but this is the reason you get a guy like him,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “It’s a big game for us. You win this one, it’s a big win.”
A victory pulls the Royals one away from their second consecutive World Series berth. A defeat revives a dangerous foe.
Cueto understands the stakes. He saved his reputation as a Royal with his outing against Houston. But he is still not far removed from his extended stumbles in August and September. At times he looked tentative, and those around him wondered if he lost confidence.
On Sunday, Yost cast himself as a true believer in Cueto, even though the Royals drew up emergency plans for every inning in Game 5 last round. Both Young and Medlen were ready to pitch from the outset. But those eight innings from Cueto altered the narrative about him.
“I don’t think Johnny’s confidence was suffering any at that point,” Yost said. “I just feel like he was preparing himself for the playoffs at the end of the year, so that when he got here, he could, like the relievers — bam! — get after it.”
In September, Cueto’s fastball velocity sat at 90.84 mph for his four-seamer and 91.89 for his two-seamer. Against the Astros, the pitch ticked up to 93.6 mph for both. He touched 96 mph with each offering.
The added speed may be a marginal upgrade, but Cueto still showed the courage to pitch inside and throw strikes over the plate. Pitching coach Dave Eiland has said Cueto gets himself into trouble when he nibbles around the zone. He did not do that in his last outing. The Royals hope he will not in his latest.
“I’m going to toe the rubber and give everything I’ve got,” Cueto said. “I’m going to take the same approach as I did the previous game, and just be ready to go, ready to pitch.”