The Royals took the field just after seven in the evening on Wednesday night. Well, most of the team. Starting pitcher Johnny Cueto didn’t make an appearance until a minute or so after the rest of the nine had found their place on the field and started their warmups. A dramatic entrance? Perhaps. All eyes were on Cueto as he finally emerged from the home dugout and hopped over the first base line on his way to the mound.
As written in this space early on Wednesday, this was the start that would define Cueto’s tenure with the Royals.
The vibe at The K for Game One was strange. It was a playoff game, but it didn’t have near the energy of the games we experienced in 2014. Was it old hat? Was it elevated expectations after having the best record in the AL? Was it the rain that arrived almost simultaneously with the first pitch? Tough to say, but the crowd never got into the game. That wasn’t the case for Game Five.
From the emotional start with the tribute to Kansas City’s fallen heroes, through a magnificent rendition of the national anthem, to the first pitch of the game, the crowd was locked in and on point. Six outs from elimination on Monday, it was as if the fans realized they could provide enough energy to will this team to victory. It was an unbelievable atmosphere.
The crowd lifted Cueto from the moment he stepped on the field. It cheered every strike and groaned at every ball. Cueto pitched a magnificent opening frame, retiring the top three batters in order. He hit a patch of poor luck in the second when Moustakas made a fine grab of a Evan Gattis shot down the line. It’s a play the Moustakas-Hosmer combo has made a number of times, but on this occasion, the throw pulled Hosmer into foul territory and off the bag. Hosmer stabbed the ball and was able to put the tag on Gattis, but the ball rolled free. With a runner on first, Cueto fiddled with the dirt in front of the mound. He didn’t like where he was landing in the second, and he stomped around the hill trying to get a spot to his liking.
Cueto came to set in the stretch and delivered a pitch to Luis Valbuena.
It was the only pitch Cueto would deliver from the stretch all night.
Quite simply, this was one of the best pitching performances in Royals postseason history. Cueto would go on to retire the next 19 batters. It was amazing.
Yet after the home run, the Royals were behind. Their plan of attack against Collin McHugh seemed to be about swinging early in the count. McHugh didn’t figure to generate many swings and misses, so the Royals thought they could pull the old “ambush.”
It wasn’t working. The Royals were retired on nine pitches in the first, seven in the second, and just 11 in the third. We know the Royals are aggressive at the plate and love to take their hacks, but this bordered on the ridiculous. It would be necessary to change their approach. The second time through the order, the Royals needed to exhibit the patience they did in Game Four and work the count. They knew they could make contact, but after hacking through their first three innings, they needed to get in favorable hitters counts to take full advantage.
They chipped away in the fourth. After a Lorenzo Cain checked swing got the blessing of the Gods of BABIP and fell into right field, Eric Hosmer stepped to the plate. On a 3-2 count, Hosmer dumped a single to center field. Astros center fielder Carlos Gomez charged the ball and Cain, running on the pitch, raced to third. It should have been runners on the corners, but Gomez slipped after fielding the ball. Third base coach Mike Jirschle watching the play all the way, activated the windmill. Cain scored easily. Across the diamond, first base coach Rusty Kuntz pointed at Jirche and acknowledged the play with a fist pump. The Royals cut the lead in half.
The Royals grabbed more in the fifth. This was the inning McHugh lost command with his curve. He hit Salvador Perez on a 3-2 curve and bounced several others. Alex Gordon worked the count full and knowing McHugh needed to throw a fastball for a strike, sat dead red and drilled one to right-center. It bounced over the wall for a ground rule double, placing runners at second and third.
This was a moment that had so often failed the Royals before the eighth inning of Game Four. They had multiple opportunities to break open these games, but struggled in run scoring situations.
Up stepped Alex Rios. Rios’ struggles have been well documented. There were rumblings he would be left off the Royals postseason roster in favor of a Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson platoon. A solid September secured his spot, but he still had to convince Royals fans. So many times he hadn’t come through in pivotal moments. Wednesday would be different. Wednesday was his time.
Ríos laced a ball just inside the third base bag and down the line. Two runs scored. The Royals lead.
Of course it had to be Rios.
An Alcides Escobar sacrifice bunt and Ben Zobrist sacrifice fly checked the appropriate boxes on the “productive outs” square on Royals Bingo and the Royals tacked on a fourth run.
From that point, it was the Cueto show. The K elevated and Cueto dominated. He retired the next 19 Astro batters. He shimmied. He quick pitched. He flummoxed Astro batters. Cueto needed just five pitches to work a sixth inning that featured a patented Alex Gordon sliding catch. Cueto came back out for the seventh to a rousing ovation. The Royals bullpen stirred. The Ned Yost Bullpen Blueprint says that when the starting pitcher goes deep into a game with the Royals lead, he will allow his starter to go until a batter reaches base. Then, the bullpen is activated. The Astros all world shortstop Carlos Correa led off the frame and hit a looper that was going over the head of second baseman Ben Zobrist. It was probably going to end Cueto’s night. Except Zobrist summoned every inch of his body to elevate and pull the ball from the air, robbing Correa of a certain hit. The BABIP Gods had spurned the Astros in favor of the Royals.
Cueto needed this performance. He was locked in and in command all night. There was nothing Astro batters could do. The crowd seemingly got louder and louder with each out, lifting Cueto. Pushing him to the summit. Making him Forever Royal.
In a last ditch effort to keep the deficit at two runs, AJ Hinch summoned Dallas Keuchel from the bullpen. Keuchel’s availability had been the point of much pregame debate. Many thought he would be good for only a batter or two. Escobar drilled a double and Zobrist lined out to second. Two hard hit balls. Cain was intentionally walked and in a lefty-lefty match-up, Hosmer fouled out. Keuchel stayed in to push Kendrys Morales to the right side of the plate.
After picking up the first two strikes, Keuchel missed twice away. He came back with a slider down, but over the middle of the plate. Morales sent the ball into orbit and the fans into delirium.
Morales’ trip around the bases was the one of the most joyous things I’ve ever experienced at The K. Arms outstretched as he reached first, it was as if he was embracing The K. The K loved him right back. A free agent signing that was panned last December was paying massive dividends in October. Who knew?
All that was left was the appearance of The Wade Davis Experience. It’s not an official Royals win until Perez dumps the Gatorade bucket on someone. Tonight, it was Ned Yost’s turn. Just the perfect finish to another perfect evening at The K.
It’s an easy adjective, perfect, but I don’t know if you could find a better one to describe this night. Perfection was all around.
And now the Royals return to the ALCS for the second consecutive year.