Sam Mellinger

Johnny Cueto aces most important test so far

Kansas City Royals celebrate winning ALDS

The Kansas City Royals celebrate winning their AL Division Series over the Houston Astros with a 7-2 victory in Game 5 on Wednesday. (Oct. 14, 2015 Video by Monty Davis | The Kansas City Star)
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The Kansas City Royals celebrate winning their AL Division Series over the Houston Astros with a 7-2 victory in Game 5 on Wednesday. (Oct. 14, 2015 Video by Monty Davis | The Kansas City Star)

Puddles of celebration formed on the plastic protecting this place from the joyous chaos of the moment. After a few of these, you get used to the smell of champagne and beer on your clothes. In a few minutes, cigar smoke will start to fill the air. For now, it is the sound of triumph — players, coaches, clubbies, and executives gathering to spray down the Royals’ latest postseason triumph.

At various times, this moment felt impossible. Not just the other day when the Royals trailed big late, but during a slide in September and, if we’re being honest, most games that Johnny Cueto pitched.

You remember that feeling. The emptiness. The regret. The frustration. He came here as an ace, but for most of his time here was as useful as a flat tire. Yes, of course you remember that feeling. David Glass does, too.

That was on the Royals owner’s mind as he stood in a Champagne-soaked oxford shirt and thought about Cueto pitching his team to a 7-2 win over the Astros in the clinching game of the American League Division Series at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday.

“I’ve heard the crowd boo him,” Glass said. “They’ve been disappointed. The expectations were so high. Did you hear them cheer him tonight? He turned the crowd around. I mean, he’s now a local hero. All you have to do is perform at the right time.”

The Royals celebrated a 7-2 victory in Game 5 of their AL Division Series against the Astros on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium that was led by Johnny Cueto's pitching gem, Alex Rios' go-ahead double and Lorenzo Cain's hustle. Hear from the players

The Royals have always won and lost as a group. That’s part of their appeal, and at times has been part of their limitations. Trading for Cueto represented not just a massive push for this season at the expense of the future, but a recognition that there would be a moment the Royals would need a star. The Royals saw the ace they lacked, and Cueto could use the platform to drive up his price as he hits the free agent market this winter.

Well, finally, Cueto and the Royals found their moment. This was a reputation saving performance by Cueto, at least for his reputation here in Kansas City. He pitched eight innings, allowing just two hits and two runs while walking none and striking out eight. This was the best he has been for his temporary team. Not by the statistics — he threw a shutout against the Tigers — but by the quality of his pitches, the conviction of his approach, and most obviously by meeting the moment.

“There’s no doubt that he knew there was some talk out there, that, ‘What was wrong with Johnny Cueto?’ ” said coach Pedro Grifol, who translated for Cueto. “But today was the game he was going to show everybody what he’s all about in big games. And that’s what he did.”

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Cueto has been with the Royals for only 81 days, but that was more than enough time to shoot a cannonball through the initial trust fans and even some within the organization had in him. They traded for a Ferrari. Through 14 starts including Game 2 in this series, they got an old wood-paneled station wagon.

He came here with a hero’s welcome. The Royals announced their acquisition of the ace pitcher during a game in July and before the last out that day a fan had purchased a jersey with Cueto’s name on the back. Another used duct tape and a sharpie. Once he joined the team, the Royals’ mascot wore a wig of dreadlocks on days he pitched.

His first four starts were good. Then he went through by far the worst stretch of his career — that’s not an exaggeration. In five starts over 24 days, he was awful. His fastball looked like slow motion, his cutter hung, and his breaking stuff often just spun. He gave up 30 runs and 48 hits in 26  1/3 innings. Batters hit .390 against him.

The story the Royals have pushed is that catcher Sal Perez wasn’t setting his target low enough, and for some reason waited until five straight disasters and a closed door meeting to say anything. His results did improve after the meeting, but even so he gave up at least nine baserunners in each of his next five starts.

The prospect of this man pitching the most important game of the Royals’ most promising season in a generation was a little like catering a health code violator for a wedding reception and hoping for the best. Before the game, Yost said he hoped to get six innings from Cueto, and when was the last time you heard that said about a supposed ace?

All of which made Cueto’s dominance against the Astros the most pleasant, welcomed, and long-awaited surprise of the Royals’ season.

“Unbelievably good,” Yost said.

Different, too. There was a more focused purpose to Cueto. Eiland noticed it the day before, when Cueto was going through his normal routine. More conviction. More confidence. When Eiland woke the morning of a do-or-die playoff game, he felt calm. He felt strong.

Cueto attacked. Sixty-two of his 91 pitches were strikes, his highest ratio in more than a month. More importantly, they were quality strikes. Down in the zone. On or near the corners, and on both sides of the plate. His fastball touched 96 miles per hour, as hard as he’s thrown all year. Royals fans are building a reputation for making Kauffman the loudest place in baseball, and Cueto had told teammates and coaches he expected to feed off that energy.

That can be a dangerous thing, because pitching requires precision, not necessarily power. But Cueto kept his mechanics pure, and simple. He may have only done that rocking chair delivery of his once, and even that wasn’t extreme. One Royals official who scouted Cueto in Cincinnati said it was the best he’d seen his fastball, but all of his pitches were good.

He threw one mistake to Luis Valbuena, and even that wasn’t that bad of a pitch. It was low, and near the inside corner, but it hit a flaming hot part of Valbuena’s swing and was hit into the Astros’ bullpen for a two-run homer.

It should have been worth only one run, but the batter before reached on an infield single. Mike Moustakas fielded Evan Gattis’ ball, but his throw was wide. Eric Hosmer tried a swipe tag, but the ball popped loose. Those were the only two hits the Astros managed against Cueto. He walked no one.

The playoffs are precious. The Royals are the only American League team back from last year. Trades for Cueto and Ben Zobrist are clear signals about a franchise shifting from the future to the now.

One fabulous start does not completely wipe away the memories of Cueto’s earlier struggles. After all, he said the world would see his true talents in Game 2, and he gave up 10 baserunners and four runs in six innings. That would have been the extent of Cueto’s postseason if not for that epic comeback Monday afternoon in Houston.

This has always been a business relationship, between Cueto and the Royals. Both sides understand they will part ways after this postseason. None of the past failure matters. Cueto was a star when the Royals required it.

This feels good, for now. But this has never been about winning the division series. The ALCS starts Friday. This will not be the last time the Royals need Cueto.

The Kansas City Royals celebrate winning their AL Division Series over the Houston Astros with a 7-2 victory in Game 5 on Wednesday. (Oct. 14, 2015 Video by Monty Davis | The Kansas City Star)

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

Thoughts on Cueto’s performance

Ned Yost: “He was unbelievably good. He knew the magnitude of this game. I think we all did. He came out from the first pitch and had everything going.”

Kendrys Morales: “We have been waiting for that kind of pitching performance from him with the quality he has, and thank God today was the day he came through and did it.”

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