Sam Mellinger

Johnny Cueto must reclaim his ace title in Game 2

Johnny Cueto (right) starts in Game 2 on Friday.
Johnny Cueto (right) starts in Game 2 on Friday. tljungblad@kcstar.com

Johnny Cueto’s turn. And now, there are no more excuses.

The trade for Cueto was supposed to change the Royals’ season, and here comes the moment we find out. He came here to be the ace. You remember that.

He was one of the dozen or so starters most baseball men agreed to be aces, and he was filling the most glaring hole for the American League’s best team — the one that would’ve won last year’s World Series if not for Madison Bumgarner.

Now, for the Royals’ season not to rest on beating the Astros’ ace, they will have to win with the guy who was supposed to be their own ace at home.

The Royals had such a big division lead that Cueto’s regular season was never going to matter. He will be remembered in Kansas City for what he does now, in the playoffs, because in this strange new world the Royals are no longer concerned with advancing to the playoffs — they are focused on advancing in the playoffs.

After the Royals lost Game 1 to the Astros 5-2, they discussed the frustration of not being able to break through on offense but also were confident they'd be back for Game 2 at 2:45 Friday at Kauffman Stadium.

So this is Cueto’s moment, and it comes with his new team down Division Series. The Royals lost 5-2 to the Astros in Game 1 at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday. So you’re up, Cueto.

“Exactly,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “That’s exactly why we got Johnny Cueto.”

The best-of-five format of the Division Series by definition means each game is more critical than other series, so there is no time for that big picture perspective that follows losses in the regular season.

Yost’s line that “it’s not a death sentence to lose Game 1” will be repeated around the city on Friday, and of course he’s right, but losing Game 2 would be close. This was not fatal, but to keep it that way, they need Cueto’s best.

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The Royals will be facing Dallas Keuchel in Houston — where he has been 1963 Sandy Koufax — on the verge of a sweep if Cueto does not do his job Friday afternoon.

Keuchel is 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA at home this year. Opponents have managed to hit just .186 with a .474 OPS against him at Minute Maid Park. The numbers are staggering.

Baseball is much more about a thousand small battles — each pitch, each plate appearance, basically what players mean when they talk about “executing” — than any narratives about pressure or energy or choking. But to get to that place, the mind has to be free.

The Royals know all of this. Their challenge now is to clear their minds. Baseball is hard enough with clutter. Playoff baseball is impossible with it.

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A year ago, the Royals won that epic Wild Card Game and then rode what the players have come to call “the wave” to the seventh game of the World Series. Now, they find themselves on the other side of that. They need to keep the wave from forming.

Around the home clubhouse late Thursday night, it was mostly silent. Sal Perez smiled as he sprayed deodorant under his arms. A few players sang in the bathroom. Others quietly toggled through screens on their phones.

Their answers were mostly short, and to the point.

“We didn’t do what we did as a team all year,” Alex Gordon said.

“Tomorrow is another day,” Alcides Escobar said.

“We have to come back out tomorrow, even it up and go back to their place,” Eric Hosmer said.

This isn’t all on Cueto, of course. Nothing is that simple. The Royals will need some offense. Kendrys Morales homered twice, but otherwise, the Royals got bupkis against Collin McHugh and four relievers. Other than Morales, the Royals did not have an extra-base hit or a leadoff man reach base.

But Cueto is the most important man of the day for the Royals, which means he’s the most important man of their season.

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That sentence would’ve been both expected and welcomed by fans back in July, when the trade happened, but now means a mix of angst and unknown. Cueto was so good in Cincinnati. Truly, one of the game’s alpha starters.

But so far, the Cueto of Kansas City resembles the Cueto of Cincinnati only by the dreadlocks.

People here didn’t see it, but he was remarkably consistent for the Reds. What he lacks in overwhelming stuff — his fastball generally sits in the low 90s — he always made up for with deception, guts, and an entirely unpredictable arsenal of pitches and deliveries.

Something turned after the trade, though. He gave up 30 runs and 48 hits in a five-start stretch from late August to mid September. The Royals have said those problems have been fixed by Perez setting up lower. Cueto’s results have improved, but he still gave up at least nine baserunners in each of his last four starts since the change.

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The Royals have worked hard to make Cueto comfortable. When he said he did not want to potentially pitch on short rest, they made him their Game 2 starter. In theory, that meant a lower profile but in reality now means something entirely different.

This is it for Cueto. Both sides have to know that he will be pitching somewhere else next year. The Royals cannot afford him on the open market. Depending on how far they advance, this relationship will last up to six more starts. The Royals’ future now rests disproportionately with Cueto’s performance.

Both sides have been able to downplay the spotty results so far. Both sides know that’s all over now, that the Royals need Cueto to justify the trade and the trouble and they need that now.

“This is a new season,” he said through an interpreter before Game 1. “And you’ll get to see what Johnny Cueto is all about.”

There are no more excuses. How he is remembered in Kansas City will be largely determined by how he performs this afternoon.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

The Star's Andy McCullough breaks down the key developments out of the Royals' 5-2 loss to the Astros in Game 1 of their AL Division Series on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium, including Yordano Ventura's short start, the Royals' quiet bats and the im

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