Sam Mellinger

The historic failure of Royals pitcher Johnny Cueto just changed the ALCS

The night could not have gone worse for Royals starter Johnny Cueto, whose historically awful performance helped the Blue Jays halve their deficit in the ALCS.
The night could not have gone worse for Royals starter Johnny Cueto, whose historically awful performance helped the Blue Jays halve their deficit in the ALCS.

A stadium full of rowdy Canadians scream out more than two decades of baseball frustration, presumably fueled by Molson, the energy coming first as heckles, then with mockery, and finally with heckling mockery and a touch of humor. This is what Johnny Cueto's failures sound like, the voices reverberating around this strange old dome:




They chanted this after Cueto had left the game, his night finished, by any measure turning in one of the worst starts in more than 100 years of playoff baseball. They wanted him back on the mound here, and who could blame them?

Cueto worked with the pace of a beaten man, his pitches either off the plate or in the Blue Jays' hot zones, never giving the Royals a chance in what eventually became a 11-8 loss in the American League Championship Series on Monday. The Blue Jays cut the Royals' lead in the series to 2-1, with Game 4 on Tuesday afternoon.

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.

"He felt great in the bullpen," said Pedro Grifol, who translated for Cueto. "His pitches were down. He got to the game, and God only knows."

Cueto was terrible. Worse than terrible, really. Baseball-Reference's database goes back to 1903, and includes no record of a starting pitcher ever giving up eight or more earned runs while collecting six or fewer outs in a playoff game before Cueto. The man made history here.

His name now shoots toward the top of the list of all-time postseason failure. This was historic, and combined with the memory of him literally dropping the ball as fans in Pittsburgh chanted his name during the 2013 Wild Card game, makes for a rotten reputation he is unlikely to fully outrun.

The Royals had some good swings against Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman, and scored enough runs late to force closer Roberto Osuna into the game. Which, really, makes Cueto's meltdown sting even more. Including the playoffs, the Royals are 17-1 when scoring exactly eight runs the last two years.

Had Cueto merely been mediocre — six innings and four runs, for instance, like he did against Houston in Game 2 of the Division Series — the Royals likely would have won this game. They would be up 3-0, the series all but over. Instead, his face plant gives a dangerous team new life.

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This is probably the kind of thing we only pay attention to when the results are bad, but Cueto didn't help himself out with his body language. At one point, on the mound, he appeared to smile and nod at the crowd chanting his name. As he walked off the field, again he smiled, nodded, as he left his team a virtually impossible challenge.

"That's just part of his DNA," Grifol said, translating. "That's what comes out. But there wasn't any laughing about it."

No matter what happens from here, Cueto will always have Game 5 of the Division Series, when he overwhelmed the Astros in the clincher and led the Royals to the doorstep of the World Series. That was a lasting triumph, and went a long way toward justifying the Royals trading for him this summer.

But this is part of him now, too, these spectacular postseason collapses. The price on his free agent contract this winter took another dive.

There is any number of specific failures we could highlight here, but the best place to start is Ryan Goins' at bat in the second inning. Cueto was pitching with the lead, and at the bottom of a very top-heavy Blue Jays lineup. No offense to Goins, but he is the Blue Jays' worst starter. This is where a starting pitcher has to get outs.

Cueto quickly got ahead in the count, 0-2, but then let Goins push a full count before shooting a laser into left field.

To review: Cueto went from 0-2 to a full count on the No. 9 hitter, threw nine pitches, and gave up the lead.

Somehow, it only got worse.

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Goins' at bat was part of a 12-batter tour de force of failure that would bring sympathy from the other side's parents in a Little League game: single, hit batter, groundout, single, walk, single, fly out, single, walk, home run, walk, double.

It has to be infuriating for the Royals coaches and executives who pushed for the trade. Cueto's problems have been among the team's biggest issues for two months now, and he's not helping himself. He waited until five consecutive garbage pile starts in August and September to say he wanted catcher Salvador Perez to hold a lower target. His results have been somewhat better since then, but still far below the fair expectations.

On Monday night, he casually mentioned a small strike zone and a difference between the height of the mounds in the bullpen and on the field. He walked it back a bit, saying he wasn't trying to make excuses, but it fits the trend.

Maybe we'll hear a new excuse in a month or two, leaked as Cueto tries to recapture his value on the open market, that his next catcher is to paint his fingernails school bus yellow and use a glove that smells of wild boars for him to be effective. Maybe the next team will believe it.

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"His next start he's going to be able to work on some things on the side," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "Guarantee you, if he makes another start in this series, he'll be good."

There is no way the Royals can be sure of that, of course. Cueto performed brilliantly in the moment the Royals most needed him, and that shouldn't be forgotten or thrown away. He pitched them into the ALCS with that shutdown Game 5 of the Division Series. Without that — or the Royals' amazing eighth inning of Game 4 or, come to think of it, the hitters bailing Cueto out after a poor start in Game 2 — the Royals might not be here.

But the Royals expected more than a mixed bag of mediocrity, greatness, and a tire fire in three postseason starts from him.

Before the end, the fans here were chanting Cueto's last name. It was the same thing they did in Pittsburgh that night, and as far as body language can be read, maybe it got to him.

Professional athletes take great pride and go to great lengths to block out noise. Some of that is to minimize the heckling, because what fun is it to spend all that energy screaming if you're not getting a reaction? But some of it is for their own personal sanity, because there is enough to worry about already. Throwing a pitch in a playoff game requires a hundred micro-decisions and physical checkpoints. Doing all of that while listening to the crowd is counterproductive, and stupid.

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That Cueto reacted is a bad look for a 29-year-old veteran, appearing to not know or not care that he had just pitched so terribly that he will be remembered in baseball history for years and years. Remember the Cueto game?

The Royals will be dealing with Cueto's stink in Game 4. His no-show required six innings from the bullpen, burning Kris Medlen, who would've been the emergency reliever for Chris Young on Tuesday. Cueto could've put a virtual end to this series. Instead, he pulled the Blue Jays back in.

The Royals still lead this series. They are still playing from the position of power. Maybe Cueto's teammates can cover for him again and push into the World Series.

But it was supposed to be the other way around.

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

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