As Johnny Cueto ambled off the Rogers Centre mound on Oct. 19 to a cacophony of jeers from nearly 50,000 boisterous blue-clad Blue Jays backers, the former-Reds-ace-turned-Royals gun-for-hire flashed his trademark pearly-white grin.
Strangely enough, only during his ignominious exit did Cueto resemble himself.
Five days after Cueto retired the last 19 Houston Astros he faced in an eight-inning, eight-strikeout masterpiece during the deciding Game 5 of the American League Division Series, Cueto was historically abominable in Kansas City’s 11-8 defeat in Game 3 of the ALCS, becoming the first pitcher in playoff history to allow at least eight earned runs in two or fewer innings pitched.
After pitching around a two-out walk in the first inning, Cueto came unraveled in the second. With one out, the plate appearances of Blue Jays hitters resulted in a single, hit batsman, fielder’s choice, single, walk, single, and a flyout, driving in three runs. An inning later, Toronto tacked on another single and walked twice more in addition to registering hits of the extra-base variety, adding a three-run home run, a run-scoring double, and a two-run home run (off Kris Medlen) to cap a six-run frame.
In the end, Cueto lived every pitcher’s nightmare. He had no control (four walks, one HBP). He had no feel for any of his pitches, which were sailing every which way in and around the strike zone. He had no confidence.
Cueto might as well have been pitching blindfolded.
On the same night where the name of Cueto’s swaying delivery (la mecedora) was revealed, Cueto recovered from his nightmare ALCS start in fine style in Game 2 of the World Series.
Nine innings. Two hits. One run. Three walks. Four strikeouts. First complete game by an American League pitcher in the World Series since Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 Fall Classic. Cueto is now the third pitcher ever with two career playoff starts of allowing two or less hits while pitching eight or more innings. The other two are Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens.
Cueto was on point early, pumping strikes in a 1-2-3 first inning. A sawed-off single created Cueto’s first base runner in the second, but it was of little consequence as Cueto quickly induced a double play.
The third inning was revelatory in a few ways. First, Michael Conforto chased a 3-2 changeup that can only be described as felonious. Then, the FOX broadcast illustrated the ill-conceived strategy by Cueto, catcher Salvador Perez, and the Royals coaching staff in Game 3 of the ALCS. Kansas City was so paranoid about real or perceived sign-stealing by Toronto that Cueto and Perez went to an elaborate sign system of their own, one that appeared to get too complicated, evidenced by Cueto seemingly signaling to Perez his preferred pitch and location with his right hand before he offered to the plate. The Blue Jays picked up on these tactics and pummeled Cueto.
When did I know think Cueto looked completely at ease Wednesday night? When he flung a 3-1 cutter/slider to nab the inside of the strike zone vs. Curtis Granderson in the fourth inning. Cueto would go on to walk Granderson and Daniel Murphy in the fourth — an amorphous strike zone from home plate umpire Mark Carlson didn’t do Cueto any favors — which helped foster in an unearned run for the Mets later in the inning.
But Cueto recovered to log 1-2-3 frames in the fifth and the sixth, ending the latter with a vintage Cueto offering, a 94 mph dart on the inside portion of the plate to catch Murphy looking at strike three. By that time, the Royals offense had already knocked Jacob deGrom from the game, battering the Mets starter for six hits and four runs over five innings.
In the seventh, Cueto unfurled another fall-off-the-table changeup to punch out Yoenis Cespedes. By now, Cueto was swaying his hips between pitches, clearly in the groove. On his 122nd pitch of the night, Cueto generated a flyout to right field off Cespedes’ bat, the final out of the game. Shortly thereafter, Cueto was handed the game ball from Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. The Royals seized a 2-0 lead in the World Series, and Cueto’s agent probably felt comfortable enough to do his best Jerry Maguire impersonation.
Entering Wednesday night, it was fair to wonder what had happened to Cueto since he was traded from Cincinnati to Kansas City on July 26. In 19 starts for the Reds in 2015, Cueto posted a 2.62 ERA in 130.2 innings. He averaged over eight strikeouts per nine innings and just over six hits allowed per nine innings. In 13 regular-season starts for the Royals, Cueto’s ERA was 4.76. His strikeout rate crashed (6.2 K/9) and hit rate skyrocketed (11.2 H/9).
Cueto said he wasn’t hurt. The issues with Perez’s positioning were supposedly ironed out. FOX’s broadcast noted that those positioning problems resurfaced in the ALCS, but were rectified leading up to Game 2 of the World Series, and it appeared as if Perez was presenting a lower target Wednesday night.
All seems to be right with Cueto and Kansas City now. With the way Royals hitters are wearing down the Mets’ young starters with their contract-driven approach, Cueto may not have to pitch again this series. And with a World Series championship and a large offseason payday on deck, Cueto’s occasionally excellent, occasionally strange Kansas City Adventure will have been worth it.