Vahe Gregorian

As Johnny Cueto fizzles, Ben Zobrist sizzles and validates Royals’ trade-deadline work

Royals second baseman Ben Zobrist singled in the seventh inning and drove in Alcides Escobar for the go-ahead run in Friday’s game.
Royals second baseman Ben Zobrist singled in the seventh inning and drove in Alcides Escobar for the go-ahead run in Friday’s game. jsleezer@kcstar.com

This was the day, or at least one of the few, for which the Royals surrendered a chunk of their potential future for pitcher Johnny Cueto.

No, the Royals weren’t facing a “death sentence” if they lost to Houston on Friday at Kauffman Stadium, as manager Ned Yost had put it.

Then again, choose your over-the-top sports metaphor for what a loss would have meant: Only five of 47 teams that stumbled into an 0-2 ravine in Major League Baseball’s Division Series have managed to climb back to win those.

So it essentially was fight or flight for the Royals, especially with them facing bleak odds against Houston’s Dallas Keuchel for Game 3 Sunday in Houston — where Keuchel is 15-0 this season.

And the baffling Cueto, even accounting for some bad luck, couldn’t meet the moment.

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After a semipromising span of stability in his volatile time with the Royals, his fickle season fizzled again.

It was a deal the Royals had to make, and one we still applaud for its spirit if not its results, but his latest misadventure set the wandering mind to wonder if all that trade-deadline commotion was worth it.

Then along came Ben Zobrist, the understated undercard of Dayton Moore’s midseason maneuvering, the acquisition that seemed almost like a luxury when the Royals reeled him in shortly after the Cueto deal was perceived as making them whole.

The no-frills opposite of the shimmying, dreadlocked Cueto delivered the game-winning RBI in a 5-4 victory by swatting home Alcides Escobar with an opposite-field single in the seventh inning.

With that, Zobrist reminded that he has been the most crucial addition the Royals made since spring training.

Just don’t tell Zobrist that.

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“I don’t know about that; it’s a team game,” he said. “I’ve been brought in here to help the club win, and I was fortunate to be able to help the team win today.

“And that’s the bottom line.”

It is, and one towards which Zobrist is contributing while Cueto sputters.

The workmanlike at-bat reflected the sturdiness Zobrist has added on the field and in the clubhouse — contributions befitting his versatility as a switch-hitter who can play about anywhere but behind the plate or on the mound.

“Nothing fancy, man,” outfielder Jarrod Dyson said. “That guy just comes and gets it done.”

After the Royals beat the Astros 5-4 on Friday and tied the AL Division Series going back to Houston, Ben Zobrist, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Johnny Cueto and Mike Moustakas discussed the key moments.

In what passes for razzle-dazzle from Zobrist, he pumped his arm as he started sprinting to first after the ball left his bat and found a gap in the Astro-physics of shifting.

“I wasn’t necessarily trying to hit that hole,” he said, smiling. “It just happened.”

If it all looks smooth now for Zobrist, 34, it was a long time coming.

That accounts for his trademark adaptability, which wasn’t his choice.

As he struggled at shortstop and the plate for Tampa Bay in 2006 and 2007, he was told his best shot in 2008 would be to bring multiple gloves to spring training.

The utilityman identity ended up taking, and he soon gained traction and grew as a hitter.

Part of his growth was in the 2008 playoffs, the first of five times he’s been in the postseason.

What he called “a deer in headlights” feeling then has evolved over time.

“Once you’ve been there a little bit, you settle down and you just want to get the job done,” he said. “You’ve got to stay in the moment, can’t get too far ahead or think about what happened yesterday or even the pitch before.

“You’ve got to focus on staying in the present.”

Speaking of which, Zobrist became a Royal because of general manager Dayton Moore’s sense of the preciousness of the present.

The Royals had been snooping around Zobrist even before Alex Gordon suffered a groin injury, but Gordon’s absence and ongoing questions about Alex Rios in right and Omar Infante at second made him irresistible for the October push.

So they yielded two pitching prospects to get him from Oakland, and Zobrist’s impact was evident almost immediately when days later he homered from both sides of the plate at Toronto.

“What he brings to the team is a lot more than you guys see out on the field,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said, “and he does a lot out on that field for us.”

That includes exuding a certain calm and professionalism, Moustakas added, by simply going about his work the right way every day.

His preparation has been helped, Zobrist added, by knowing that for the foreseeable future he’s playing second base, where he took over for the injured Infante and started 33 times in the regular season.

“So it’s enabled me to focus,” he said, “just on my work at second.”

Work, as it’s happened, that has been not a luxury but a necessity for the Royals.

The Star's Andy McCullough details a big win for the Royals in Game 2 of their American League Division Series against the Astros and what it means for the rest of the series, which shifts to Houston on Sunday.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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