The Kansas City Royals are going back to the American League Championship series, which will feature the two teams with the best regular season records in the AL for the first time since 2009. They made that a reality after staging yet another comeback win to beat the Astros 7–2 in Game 5 of their Division Series matchup Wednesday night. That brought an end to Houston’s Cinderella-story season, but 2015 should be just the first chapter in a new era of contention for the Astros. The Royals, meanwhile, continue their quest to avenge their near-miss in last year’s World Series, and if Wednesday’s performance was indication, they finally have an ace to lead the charge, which starts in Kansas City on Friday against the Blue Jays. Here are three quick thoughts on the Royals Game 5 win and the series as a whole.
1. Cueto steps up in huge spot for Royals
As a Cincinnati Red from 2011 through this year’s non-waiver trading deadline, Johnny Cueto posted a 2.51 ERA and 156 ERA+ with both marks second only to Clayton Kershaw among all pitchers with 500 or more innings over that stretch. Heading toward free agency this off-season with the Reds languishing near the bottom of the National League Central, he was one of the top trade targets at this year’s deadline, and a huge get for a Royals team with a weak rotation but a near lock on the AL Central title and hopes of going deep into the postseason. However, in 13 starts with the Royals during the regular season, he posted a 4.76 ERA and 87 ERA+ with just three of his final nine starts being quality. In Game 2 of the Division Series against the Astros, he again fell short of a quality start, allowing four runs in his first three innings of work and leaving the game after six innings with the Astros in the lead.
Entering Game 5, Cueto had gone 0–2 with a 5.52 ERA in four postseason starts, none of them quality, and when he gave up a two-run home run to Luis Valbuena in the bottom of the second inning Wednesday night, it looked like he was in trouble again. However, Valbuena and Evan Gattis, who reached on an infield single ahead of him, proved to be the only baserunners would allow in eight dominant innings of work. After Valbuena’s home run, Cueto retired the final 19 men he faced in a row. After the first out of the fourth, he didn’t allow any of the final 14 men he faced to hit a fair ball to the outfield. On the night, he struck out eight, got five pop-ups, four groundouts, benefited from a pair of nice plays by Alex Gordon (sliding into foul territory) and Ben Zobrist (a leaping grab), got four easy fly outs, and allowed just those two hits in the bottom of the second. By game score it was his second-best start as a Royal (he shutout the Tigers on August 10), but by any other measure, it was the most important start of his career, and he came up huge. In Cueto’s words after the game, the real Johnny Cueto came out tonight.
2. K.C. keeps making postseason magic
All three of the Royals wins in this series were comeback wins with the go-ahead runs scoring no earlier than the fifth inning. Kansas City went ahead Wednesday with Salvador Perez getting clipped by a Collin McHugh pitch to start the fifth inning. Alex Gordon following with a ringing ground-rule double to rightfield to put the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position, and Alex Rios delivering what proved to be a game-winning, two-RBI double just inside the third base line off reliever Mike Fiers. A sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly brought Rios home with an insurance run, and Kendrys Morales put the game out of reach in the eighth with his third home run of the series, a three-run shot off Dallas Keuchel, filling the David Price role of ace struggling in relief.
The team’s biggest comeback, however, was their fifth-run eighth-inning rally in Game 4, six outs away from elimination. One big question about the Royals coming into this postseason was if they would be able to replicate their postseason magic of a year ago, when they came from behind three times in the wild-card game to save their season and won five of their first six games in the final at-bat. That comeback in Game 4 seemed to be evidence that they could, and Game 5 confirmed it.
3. Astros bullpen buckles under pressure
The Astros bullpen was one of their strengths during the regular season, but it proved to be their downfall in this series. If you’re not convinced of that by the fact all three Royals wins were comeback victories in which the go-ahead runs scored after the Houston starter was out of the game, consider the decision Astros manager A.J. Hinch made at the turning point of Game 5.
With the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position with no outs in the bottom of the fifth, what the Astros most needed was a strikeout. Starter Collin McHugh had struck out just two Royals in 10-plus innings in this series, so Hinch decided he needed to go to his bullpen in that spot. The best strikeout pitcher in the Astros’ bullpen was Josh Fields, who struck out 11.9 men per nine innings during the regular season and had four strikeouts in 1 2/3 innings in the series. However, Fields gave up two runs in Game 4 and walked in the tying run in Game 2, the Astros only two losses in this series. Lefties Tony Sipp and Oliver Perez weren’t options with two righties due up. Will Harris, arguably the team’s best right-handed reliever during the regular season, had struggled over the last month, as detailed in this game preview. Pat Neshek also struggled down the stretch, falling so far down on Hinch’s depth chart that his only appearance in the series prior to Wednesday came with the team trailing in the ninth inning of Game 2. That left closer Luke Gregerson and repurposed starter Mike Fiers, the latter of whom actually had a higher strikeout rate than Gregerson, Harris and Neshek during the regular season. Lacking faith in his other options, Hinch went with a pitcher who hadn’t appeared in a game in two weeks and whose only relief appearance this season, which came back on August 3, saw him give up six runs in five innings.
Fiers allowed both of his inherited runners plus one of his own to score, failing to strikeout any of the four batters he faced. Hinch got good work from Sipp and Neshek in the sixth and seventh, but again showing distrust of his bullpen, inserted rotation ace Dallas Keuchel in the eighth inning. Keuchel, pitching in relief for the first time since 2013, put the game out of reach with the help of an intentional walk ordered by Hinch. That walk and a leadoff double by Alcides Escobar scored on Morales’s three-run home run. On the series, the Houston bullpen posted a 7.55 ERA and 1.82 WHIP. Those numbers were obviously inflated by the poor work of Fiers and Keuchel in this game, but even without the help of those repurposed starters, the Astros’ proper relievers had a 5.85 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in this series, and that doesn’t include the two unearned runs they allowed in Game 4. In modern baseball, no team can win without an effective bullpen, but that was especially true for this Astros team, for which the bullpen was such a large part of its success during the regular season.