KANSAS CITY — Say this about Johnny Cueto: He is a great showman. There are the long dreadlocks that seem to add flair to every pitch. There’s the delivery, during which he literally turns his back to the hitter, holds his pose, then sometimes adds a little shoulder shimmy like he’s Beyoncé, before slinging one of five pitches from the same release point. He comes off the mound, after a triumphant inning, thumping his chest as he removes his cap, and then stuffs it into his glove, which he puts under his arm as he marches back to the dugout, head held up high to the roar of the crowd, like a proud warrior walking off the battlefield.
But yes, he can be so maddening too, and when he’s misfiring, when his shoulders are slumped and he’s sulking around the mound, Johnny Cueto’s act can get tired fast, and the act had started to tire weeks ago in Kansas City, where he’d been a shell of himself since arriving in late July. For 13 weeks, the faithful waited for this moment, wondering if it would ever come. “He says that he woke up today on the right foot,” Cueto’s interpreter said during the postgame news conference after Game 5 of the ALDS. “As soon as he woke up, he felt something magic that this was Game 5 and he had to show up for everybody, for his team and the fans.”
Maybe it is in the end this simple for Cueto: he wakes up and feels the magic. Johnny Cueto, October Ace, arrived on Wednesday night, as he dominated the Astros over eight innings, retiring the last 19 he faced, led Kansas City to a 7–2 win that punched its ticket to the ALCS and turned the Royals’ home ballpark into a rollicking block party. Cueto was the first AL pitcher to retire the last 19 batters he faced since Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series. It was the longest outing by a Royals pitcher in a postseason game since Bret Saberhagen’s complete game shutout in Game 7 of the 1985 World Series.
“This was his night,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said after the game. Really, there was nothing else to say.
In some ways, this Kansas City team feels so familiar: there’s Hos, Moose, Esky, Gordy, Salvy, Cain, the lock-down bullpen, the brilliant Cirque du Soleil defense, the steely manager, Ned Yost. But in this winner-take-all Game 5 rumble in K.C., it was all about the new Royals. There was Alex Rios, acquired by Royals GM Dayton Moore over the off-season, with the biggest hit of the game: facing Mike Fiers, who’d come in for Collin McHugh in the fifth, Rios ripped a curveball down the leftfield line, to score Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon. There was Ben Zobrist—acquired by Moore at the trade deadline—who hit a sac fly to score Rios give the Royals a 4–2 lead. And there was another winter acquisition, Kendrys Morales, rocking a curveball, down and in from Dallas Keuchel, into the centerfield seats.
And there was Cueto, the man who was always going to be the October difference maker for the Royals. When Moore made the deal to land Cueto at the end of July, it was proclaimed as The Big Move that Kansas City needed to make to win the World Series. The Royals finally had that missing piece: the shut-down ace—Cueto was 7-6 with a 2.62 ERA at the time of the move—to finish what they started last October.
But the longtime Reds ace, who for long stretches in Cincinnati could look like the best pitcher on the planet, was far from that guy for Kansas City over the last two months, and no one could explain why. The Royals tried everything to help fix Cueto: they tweaked his delivery, they had catcher Salvador Perez position himself lower. They told him not to put pressure on himself, to relax. Nothing seemed to work. “How do you describe Johnny Cueto’s relationship with Kansas City? It’s complicated,” read a headline from the Kansas City Star on Tuesday.
The Royals won his start in Game 2 of the ALDS, but Cueto was far from dominant, surrendering four runs over six innings. Leading up to this game, there was really no reason at all to have faith in Cueto. But Kauffman Stadium was on its feet and rocking from the very first pitch: a 92 mph called strike to Jose Altuve. Cueto struck out George Springer on a 94 mph in the first, the first of eight strikeouts. He made one mistake—a 94 mph fastball to Luis Valbuena that he crushed for a two-run home run in the top of the second to give Houston a 2–0 lead. But Cueto did not unravel; he got stronger. As the scoreless innings began to add up, he shook both fists as he walked off the mound, and screamed, charged from the energy from the rocking stadium. “He pitches with emotion, and he rose to the occasion,” said Hinch. “He had a good fastball tonight. Got it and crept into the mid 90s. The good version of Johnny Cueto is really tough.”
Yost had a decision to make in the seventh: The Royals were clinging to a 4–2 lead and it was the time of the game when he hands the keys to the lockdown Ryan Madson-Kelvin Herrera-Wade Davis troika—but Cueto was rolling, having retired 13 straight with just 72 pitches through six innings. Cueto stayed in the game and set the Astros down in order, on 14 pitches. Cueto came back out for the eighth, and needed just five pitches to retire Evan Gattis, Valbuena, and Chris Carter. “He was unbelievably good,” said Yost. “He didn’t make a bad pitch all night. That pitch that Valbuena hit was a good pitch.” Yost said that Cueto lobbied to go back out in the ninth. “I’m like, look, I got the best reliever in the game down there; he’s going to come in and close it out,” said Yost, who turned to Davis with a comfortable 7–2 lead.
It was a quiet end for the Astros: no Houston batter reached base after Valbuena’s home run in the second. Twenty-two straight Astros retired. There will be plenty of time to dissect Houston’s missed opportunities in this series, in the following days, weeks, and months (and, perhaps, years) after squandering a late lead in Game 2 and its astonishing collapse in Game 4. The future is bright in Houston, but that doesn’t diminish the crushing disappointment of the series. “I think in time, time heals all wounds,” said Hinch. “We’ll be able to reflect back on a lot of things that we learned about ourselves, we learned about our team. And a lot of good’s going to come out of it. It doesn’t feel like it right now. I got a lot of heartbroken guys in that clubhouse that really believed that we could continue on.”
The celebration raged on at Kauffman Stadium late into Wednesday night. On the field, champagne soaked players lingered as fans in the stands roared. The Kauffman fountains glimmered in the outfield. The scene is becoming a familiar October sight. They were America’s team an October ago, the little small-market engine that could. The vibe this postseason is entirely different. Back in spring training, when practically no one picked them to win their own division after making the World Series, you could sense the chip on their shoulder all the way back in those early days in Surprise, Ariz. After a number of bench-clearing episodes earlier this year, they suddenly, somehow, became the bad boys of baseball. As they cruised to the AL’s best record during the regular season, they were the team with the target on their back.
And now they’re back here, celebrating another October series win, headed to the ALCS to face the Blue Jays in a rematch of the 1985 ALCS, a series won by the Royals, then led by Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen. They may seem familiar, these Royals, and in some ways they are, but with one big difference now. They now have the ace to finish what they started a year ago.