KANSAS CITY, Mo. — And now, Hereeeeeeeee's Johnny!
He is, in some ways, the perfect man for the moment. After the long and strange journey that was Kansas City's 14-inning win over the Mets in Game 1 of the World Series, Kauffman Stadium will be a thundering cauldron on Wednesday night, with the home team now three wins from its first title since 1985, and the pitcher the Royals will have on their mound is a man who pitches on emotion, on feel. Johnny Cueto explained that much on Tuesday, the eve of his Game 2 start. “I read rhythms,” said Cueto, a great improviser on the mound, with his wide assortment of deliveries and pitches. “And I come up with these different type of windups because of the rhythm that I feel.”
His delivery is a dance, with his dreadlocks bopping and his shoulders shimmying. In his last home start, Game 5 of the ALDS against the Astros, he commanded the stage in winner-take-all game. After a brilliant, eight-inning performance in a 7–2 win, his interpreter sitting next to him at the postgame conference relayed what Cueto had said about how his day started: “As soon as he woke up, he felt something magic.” Rhythm and magic: This is the pitching of Johnny Cueto, in a nutshell.
He is also, in many ways, far from the perfect man for the moment. Once one of the best pitchers in baseball, he’s been, since arriving from the Reds in a late July trade, a cipher in Kansas City. The memory of his ALCS Game 3 debacle in Toronto is still fresh, especially the image of that odd, sheepish grin as he walked off the mound to the roaring jeers of the crowd after failing to get out of the third inning.
On paper, Game 2 of the World Series is a mismatch. The Mets will trot out Jacob deGrom, their true ace, a 27-year-old who has been brilliant in three starts this postseason. For the Royals, Game 2 is a grand opportunity to take control of the series before it heads to New York, but they’ll need a big start from Cueto, who has an opportunity to prove his worth to a franchise and a city in the biggest outing of his career. As if the stakes weren’t high enough, Cueto will be a free agent this winter, and every start he makes could represent a swing of tens of millions of dollars. He is aware of this, and he knows that his stock has nosedived in recent months, telling CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, “That’s the way it is. Hopefully I pitch two great games and increase my value.”
It’s biggest question of Game 2: Which Johnny will show up tonight? The pitcher who retired the last 19 Astros he faced in his Game 5 ALDS masterpiece that punched Kansas City's ticket to the ALCS? 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, but the most eye-opening part was how comfortable Cueto seemed in the moment. As he walked off the mound in the eighth, he shook both fists and screamed, charged from the energy of the rocking stadium. “He pitches with emotion,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said after the game.
Or will it be the pitcher who began to crumble in Game 3 of the ALCS from the first pitch of the game? Chants of “Cueeee-tooo!” rained down throughout the Rogers Centre, the hostile crowd drawing inspiration from the fans at Pittsburgh's PNC Park that had seemed to rattle Cueto, then with Cincinnati, during the 2013 NL wild-card game. On that infamous night, Cueto, with his name echoing across the ballpark, dropped the baseball, then gave up a home run to Russell Martin as the Pirates went on to win. Game 3 in Toronto was an unprecedented unraveling: Over two-plus innings, Cueto allowed six hits, four walks and eight runs and threw just 69 pitches—a disastrous outing that once again raised loud questions about whether the Royals could possibly trust him.
“What happened in Toronto happened in Toronto,” he said on Tuesday. “That’s over with. I’m not thinking about that.” The Royals aren’t taking any chances, strategically slotting him in the series rotation so that both his starts will come at Kauffman Stadium. Of course, he insists that hostile crowds do not rattle him. “It doesn’t matter to me whether I pitch at home or on the road. But I do feel more comfortable here at home,” he said.
Really, it was not long ago that Cueto was one of baseball’s best pitchers—he finished second in the NL Cy Young voting in 2014 and had a 2.62 ERA in 19 starts with the Reds over the first half of this season. He is capable of greatness, and, when the Royals acquired him at the trade deadline for a hefty price—young pitchers Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed—there was every reason to think that getting a bona fide ace to lead their rotation would be The Move that would put the Royals over the top. Kansas City gave him a savior’s welcome, the ballpark electric with anticipation when he made his first few home starts. He was solid early, with four straight quality starts, but then the excitement cooled with one mediocre start after another. At times, he was downright dreadful: He had a 6.11 ERA in six September outings.
The Royals tried everything to get him right. Relax, they told him, there's no reason to put pressure on yourself. They thought he was trying to throw too hard, to get extra movement on his off-speed stuff. They changed his delivery, telling him to turn his left shoulder later as he started his motion to the plate. They had catcher Salvador Perez position himself lower; Perez did everything he could to accommodate his pitcher. There are concerns about Cueto's elbow, questions that teams will have to confront when they decide how much he is worth.
There is only one certainty regarding Game 2: with Cueto on the mound, it will be a show. “More than anything, he really feeds off of our home crowd,” Yost said Tuesday, later adding, “He more than anybody else really draws that energy from our fans.”
Cueto is an enigma. On Wednesday night, he will have perhaps one last chance to prove that he’s still an ace. He has at least one more chance to win over Kansas City. It’s almost as if his 16 starts as a Royal up to this moment are meaningless. Everything rests on what he does between now and the end of the World Series, and it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be the hero or the goat. The place will be pulsating, as it was on Tuesday night. Cueto will take the mound for his first pitch, and the ballpark will hold its breath.