Royals

Blue Jays pound Johnny Cueto as Royals lose 11-8 in ALCS Game 3

Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar dives for home plate past Royals catcher Salvador Perez to score in the second inning off a two RBI hit by second baseman Ryan Goins during Monday's ALCS baseball game at Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar dives for home plate past Royals catcher Salvador Perez to score in the second inning off a two RBI hit by second baseman Ryan Goins during Monday's ALCS baseball game at Rogers Centre in Toronto. skeyser@kcstar.com

The injury still stung, a deep, lasting bruise left after Toronto’s slumbering python awakened and loosened the Kansas City stranglehold around its neck. Now came the insults, thousands of them, flying from every angle inside Rogers Centre in the third inning of an 11-8 Royals loss to Toronto in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.

As a group of shell-shocked Royals circled the mound, Johnny Cueto handed the baseball to manager Ned Yost. It was a move some would argue should have occurred three batters earlier, before Cueto surrendered a series-altering, three-run homer to Troy Tulowitzki. A frothing crowd erupted with cheers, mirthful but cruel, as Cueto shuffled toward his dugout.

Cueto could not ignore the noise. He gazed up at the fans pointing and shouting at him. And then he did the oddest thing: He smiled. He craned his neck at the wall of bodies clad in blue and white. He cast his eyes downward but still the expression pocked his face.

After giving up eight runs in two innings, Royals starting pitcher Johnny Cueto said he couldn't adjust from the bullpen mound and left pitches up. He was charged with eight runs in the Blue Jays' 11-8 win that cut the Royals series lead to 2-1 wi

“That’s just part of his DNA,” said catching coach Pedro Grifol, who translated for Cueto. “That’s what comes out. But there wasn’t any laughing about it.”

The look did not personify joy, not after he gave up eight runs in a playoff game, but the reaction typified the oddity of his tenure in Kansas City. No one, it seems, can figure out Cueto’s motivations, his personality or his fleeting fits of competent pitching.

During three months as a Royal, his behavior continues to confound. He saved his team’s season with his last performance Wednesday. Five days later, his combustion allowed the Blue Jays to enter Game 4 on Tuesday with a chance to even this series. The responsibility lands at Cueto’s feet.

“We all know how dangerous they are in this park,” first baseman Eric Hosmer. “You don’t think he would have the outing he did, but you know it’s going to be tough. You know it’s never easy with these guys.”

The Royals will not have to consider Cueto’s quirks and inconsistency for much longer. He will depart for the riches of free agency this winter. But in the interim, team officials must scratch their heads as he fluctuates between great and gruesome.

Read Next

On Monday, he blamed the difference between the bullpen mound and the actual one on the diamond. Cueto failed to locate strikes down in the zone. The Blue Jays hammered him for it.

"He felt great in the bullpen,” Grifol said. “His pitches were down. He got to the game, and God only knows."

Cueto could not repeat the frenetic pace and brazen aggression from his last start, Game 5 of the American League Division Series, when he retired the last 19 Astros he faced. On Monday he faced 17 men. Only six made outs. He ceded the stage to Kris Medlen, who gave up two homers but saved the bullpen.

The struggles of Cueto and Medlen ruined another relentless evening from the offense. When Kendrys Morales boomed a two-run shot in the ninth inning off closer Roberto Osuna, the Royals trimmed the lead to three. The Royals tallied 15 hits, but they could only offset so much failure on the mound.

“Eight runs should be enough to win a ballgame,” Yost said. “But tonight, it wasn’t.”

Kansas City hoped Cueto could build off that start against Houston and reclaim the ace-status he held when he arrived from Cincinnati in July. Instead he amplified the importance of Chris Young in Game 4. A flyball pitcher, Young must avoid the landmines that engulfed Cueto on Monday.

Cueto dueled with Marcus Stroman, a 24-year-old right-hander only seven months removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He exuded youthful exuberance as he warmed up before the game, slapping hands with fans along the left-field line as the stands filled.

Read Next

The rowdies at Rogers Centre appeared to enliven Cueto. He received a fierce round of boos when he was introduced before the game. With his smile beaming across the center-field scoreboard, he tipped his cap and waved to the angry throngs.

“It’s loud,” Hosmer said. “It’s definitely loud.”

To rattle Cueto, the Toronto fans relied upon the script written in Pittsburgh during the 2013 National League Wild Card Game. The two syllables of his name can sound like an expletive when elongated and spat outward on pipes lubricated by Labatt Blue. The chants rained down upon him from the start, and Cueto flashed a grin and popped bubblegum inside his jaw. Yet afterward, Cueto insisted he did not notice those around him.

“He's not thinking about the fans or what they're saying,” Grifol said. “He's just concentrating on the game.”

The smile disappeared in the second inning. Cueto yielded a one-out single to Tulowitzki, who looked compromised earlier this postseason by the crack in his scapula. Next he smoked catcher Russell Martin with a fastball. The force caused Martin’s left wrist guard to unspool and land into the dirt.

Cueto soon completed a similar journey. He produced a groundball off the bat of Kevin Pillar. Alcides Escobar fed Ben Zobrist for one out, but Zobrist could not turn two in time. Pillar soon jetted to second base, which was unoccupied. Both plays cost the Royals.

In the moment, the extra 90 feet for Pillar mattered little. There were two outs and Cueto was facing No. 9 hitter Ryan Goins. He came to the plate with an .087 batting average in the playoffs. Cueto kept aiming for belt-high strikes, but umpire John Hirschbeck did not cooperate.

“He thought he made some good pitches that he didn't get the call,” Grifol said.

On the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Goins stroked a single into left. Tulowitzki scored and Pillar sprinted just inches ahead of the tag after a throw by Alex Gordon. The sing-song jeering continued as Cueto walked Ben Revere and watched Josh Donaldson smash an RBI single past the dive of Mike Moustakas.

Read Next

Kansas City cut into Toronto’s lead with a run in the third. But Cueto would implode in the bottom of the inning. From the start, he looked troubled. All four pitches he threw to Edwin Encarnacion rose in the upper register of the strike zone. Cueto gave up a single and then walked first baseman Chris Colabello.

The revival of Tulowitzki began in Game 2, when he notched a pair of hits. Now he came to the plate with the evening hanging in the balance. Before Game 5 against Houston, the Royals vowed to remove Cueto at the first sign of danger. The combination of his dominance that night and the games scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday afforded Cueto more leeway in this contest.

“You kind of hope he can find a way to make an adjustment,” Yost said. “He was just up, up, up. And you’re hoping somewhere, at the two-inning mark, you’re just hoping he can make that adjustment.Tonight he just couldn’t.”

The bullpen mounds were unoccupied as Cueto fed Tulowitzki a 93-mph fastball near the letters. Lorenzo Cain sprinted toward the wall only to run out of room. Tulowitzki pointed at his dugout as he galloped along the bases.

Only now did the bullpen activate. Medlen warmed up as Cueto’s night stumbled to a conclusion. He walked Martin. For his final act, Cueto served up a ringing RBI double to Pillar. At last Yost emerged for the merciful removal.

“He couldn’t command the ball down,” Yost said. “He was up all night long. Just really struggled with his command.”

Read Next

A few minutes later, as Medlen went to work, the crowd bemoaned the departure of Kansas City’s woebegone ace.

“We want Cueto,” they shouted. “We want Cueto.”

The mocking did not arrive without merit. Cueto is not scheduled to pitch again in this series until Game 7. Toronto can only hope for another crack at him. Cueto insisted he welcomed the chance.

“He feels confident,” Grifol said. “This is not going to end here. He's going to get another shot at it.”

Only five days removed from his triumphant night at Kauffman Stadium, the words rang hollow. Only two victories away from the World Series, the mystery of Johnny Cueto remains unsolved.

Andy McCullough: 816-234-4730, @McCulloughStar. Download True Blue, The Star’s free Royals app, here.

The Star's Andy McCullough and Sam Mellinger discuss how Johnny Cueto fell apart in the Royals' 11-8 loss in Game 3 of the ALCS on Monday night in Toronto. Game 4 is at 3 p.m. Tuesday on FS1.

Monday’s box score

Blue Jays 11, Royals 8

Royals

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

Escobar ss

5

3

4

0

0

0

.583

Zobrist 2b

5

3

3

1

0

0

.385

Cain cf

4

0

1

1

0

0

.273

Hosmer 1b

5

1

2

2

0

1

.333

K.Morales dh

4

1

3

2

1

0

.400

Moustakas 3b

5

0

1

1

0

0

.231

Perez c

5

0

0

0

0

0

.083

Gordon lf

4

0

1

0

0

1

.300

Rios rf

4

0

0

0

0

0

.100

Totals

41

8

15

7

1

2

Toronto

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

Revere lf

4

1

1

0

1

0

.077

Donaldson 3b

4

1

2

3

1

1

.333

Bautista rf

3

0

1

1

2

1

.125

Encarnacion dh

5

1

2

0

0

2

.333

Colabello 1b

3

1

0

0

1

0

.273

Smoak 1b

1

0

0

0

0

0

.000

Tulowitzki ss

4

2

2

3

0

2

.333

Pennington 2b

0

0

0

0

0

0

Ru.Martin c

2

1

0

0

1

2

.000

Pillar cf

4

2

1

1

0

0

.273

Goins 2b-ss

4

2

2

3

0

1

.400

Totals

34

11

11

11

6

9

Royals

101

020

004

8

15

0

Toronto

036

010

01x

11

11

0

LOB: Kansas City 8, Toronto 6. 2B: Zobrist 3 (3), Pillar (2). 3B: Escobar (1). HR: K.Morales (1), off Osuna; Tulowitzki (1), off Cueto; Donaldson (1), off Medlen; Goins (1), off Medlen. RBIs: Zobrist (1), Cain (2), Hosmer 2 (4), K.Morales 2 (4), Moustakas (3), Donaldson 3 (3), Bautista (1), Tulowitzki 3 (4), Pillar (1), Goins 3 (4). SB: Pillar (1). SF: Cain.

Runners left in scoring position: Kansas City 3 (Rios, Moustakas, Perez); Toronto 2 (Bautista, Smoak). RISP: Kansas City 3 for 10; Toronto 5 for 11. Runners moved up: Zobrist. GIDP: Colabello. DP: Kansas City 1 (Zobrist, Escobar, Hosmer).

Royals

I

H

R

ER

W

K

P

ERA

Cueto L, 0-1

2

6

8

8

4

2

69

36.00

Medlen

5

3

2

2

1

6

70

3.60

F.Morales

1

2

1

1

1

1

20

9.00

Toronto

I

H

R

ER

W

K

P

ERA

Stroman W, 1-0

6.1

11

4

4

1

1

94

5.68

Aa.Sanchez

0.2

0

0

0

0

0

12

0.00

Lowe

1

0

0

0

0

1

12

0.00

Hendriks

0.1

3

3

3

0

0

9

81.00

Osuna

0.2

1

1

1

0

0

9

13.50

Cueto pitched to 5 batters in the 3rd.

Inherited runners-scored: Medlen 1-1, Aa.Sanchez 1-0, Osuna 1-1. HBP: by Cueto (Ru.Martin). WP: Stroman.

Umpires: Home, John Hirschbeck; First, Hunter Wendelstedt; Second, Dan Iassogna; Third, Jeff Nelson; Left, Jim Reynolds; Right, Laz Diaz. Time: 3:13. Att: 49,751.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

  Comments