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Another postseason day off and another postseason day with little in the way of news. The series returns to Kauffman with Yordano Ventura on the mound Friday.
After winning the first two at The K, the Royals were able to take one of three north of the border. After the first two wins, it would have been nice to close the series out without the return trip to Kansas City, but it feels like getting a win in Toronto was a good result. The Royals now have two chances to put the series away on home turf.
Ventura met the media ahead of his Game Six start but didn’t offer much in the way of interest. As McCullough points out, the young Royals flamethrower has yet to author a notable postseason performance this October. Playoff statistics are fraught with small sample size caveats, but it’s impossible to escape the fact Ventura has allowed 16 hits in just over 12 innings of work while walking six. It’s too many baserunners. On the other hand, he’s whiffed 16. We’ve seen an electric Ventura who has been prone to leaving hittable pitches in the zone.
You don’t need me to write that Ventura has been in this position before. We all remember Game Six of the 2014 World Series. It’s not exactly the same situation – the Royals returned from San Francisco needing to win both games, this time they need just one win and have two opportunities to secure it – nevertheless, there is something comforting to hear “Game Six starter, Yordano Ventura.”
If it feels like the pressure is on Ventura (at least from a fan’s perspective) it’s because we all know who’s lurking in a potential Game Seven. After watching the train wreck on the mound in Toronto, who could openly get excited about a Johnny Cueto start in another elimination game? As masterful as he was in the ALDS against Houston in the fifth game, there was absolutely nothing to like about his start at Rogers Center. Therein lies the problem: Which Johnny Cueto will show up? Your guess is as good as mine. We can psychoanalyze all day long, but the only way we will know the definitive answer is when he actually puts the ball in his right hand and let’s it fly. Which is exactly why fans are so nervous about having Cueto on the mound in Game Seven.
If you look at the offensive numbers through five, it looks like the Royals are cruising. They have outscored the Jays 34-23 and own a .296/.335/.450 line. Toronto has countered hitting .239/.330/.374. Again, the small sample size caveat applies here, but I bring it up to point out that ahead of Game Five, the Royals offense was in fine form. The top third of the order – Alcides Escobar, Ben Zobrist, and Lorenzo Cain – have been brilliant. Alex Gordon shouldn’t be hitting eighth (everyone knows this) but there is something comforting about having his bat anchoring the lower half of the order and setting the table for the top. It’s not the smartest way to draw up the lineup, but like most everything Ned Yost does in October, it just seems to work.
Speaking of Yost, a post at Fangraphs confirms what many suspected about his handling of his starters this October – He’s been a lot more patient, often with poor results. While it’s certainly understandable that Yost trusts in his guys, in the short season of the playoff series, and with the best bullpen in baseball just a phone call away, Yost has been at times too slow to go to the hook for his starters. The way he handled Chris Young in Game Four was perfection. Once the order turned over a third time, he was removed at the first baserunner. That just happened to be the leadoff hitter in the fifth inning. Still, it was a perfectly deployed strategy to not allow Young to face Josh Donaldson and possibly Jose Bautista a third time. In Game Five, the opposite was true. In the sixth inning of a 1-0 game, the order turned over a third time. Yes, Volquez had pitched brilliantly through the first five, but with a fully rested (at least for the trustworthy arms) bullpen at his disposal, Yost waited too long. The Jays tallied a run on three walks and a hit batter. Inexcusable given the situation.
The only thing I can come up with on why this happens is the manager is falling into some sort of starting pitching bias. Chris Young is a guy who generally can give you five innings at the most. So when he starts showing signs of a struggle in the fourth, Yost goes to the bullpen. However, starters like Volquez and Cueto routinely go deeper into games. They can give you seven strong innings, so they should be able to escape the sixth, right? We saw such a high wire act in Game One when Volquez needed 37 pitches to survive the sixth. If you’re being honest, the Royals were fortunate that didn’t blow up and turn the game in the Jays favor.
You have to think today with Ventura on the mound, and with the lessons of Volquez in Game Five and Cueto in Game Three, Yost will have a quicker hook. Again, his prime relievers are rested and ready to go. He can mix and match to get multiple innings from some and still have a stocked pen in the eventuality the series goes the full seven.
This is a difficult series to get an accurate read. It would have been nice if this series was like the NLCS for the Mets, where they simply destroyed the Cubs. But that was never in the plan here. The Royals and the Jays were the top two teams in the AL and they figured to stand toe to toe and slug it out from there. Both teams are landing haymakers. One team will be standing at the end. Game on.
Back in Game One, Edinson Volquez pitched five brilliant innings, then floundered into choppy waters in the sixth. In that game, after an agonizing 30 minute-37 pitch frame, the Royals emerged unscathed and took the game. Yesterday, Volquez was not brilliant, but was very good for five innings and entered the sixth with his team down 1-0. Unlike the first game, the Royals did not emerge unscathed.
Walk, hit by pitch, walk and walk is no way to make a living on the mound and that is what Volquez did to begin the frame. Relieved by Kelvin Herrera, he could only watch as Troy Tulowitzki ripped a one out double (more good hitting than bad pitching on that one, by the way) to plate three more runs. Game over, basically.
My wife asked me ‘what happened?’ and the only real answer I could come up with is the Royals simply got beat yesterday. They ran into a good pitcher having a great night and handed a great offensive team four free baserunners to play with – in a row. Momma said there would be days like this.
Did Volquez get squeezed in that sixth inning? Here’s the strike zone plot courtesy of Brooks Baseball for the at-bat against the purveyor of sunshine and goodness, Jose Bautista:
You want way more and way better on the above? Click this link for an absolutely tremendous article by BasedBall.
And the following plate appearance by Edwin Encarnacion:
It would not be uncommon to get a few of those calls, but it is not uncommon not to, either. Big name hitters on their home turf? That’s a tough called strike to get sometimes.
The Royals did muster something of a challenge in the eight when Salvador Perez hit a two out solo homer followed by singles by Gordon and Rios. You wonder what might have been if Alcides Escobar’s liner (fliner more accurately?) had found a home outside of Happy Bautista’s glove, but it was not to be. The Royals got beat, turn the page.
The national storyline now seems to be turning towards an almost expectation that the Blue Jays are going to waltz through Game Six. There was already talk on MLB Radio speculating about whether Ned Yost could actually hand the ball to Johnny Cueto for Game Seven. My question is, how comfortable does John Gibbons feel about handing the ball to David Price for Game Six?
Do you think, with Price warming in the pen in the seventh yesterday that the Royals hurt themselves by not forcing Gibbons to pitch Price in relief yesterday (and thus go with Marcus Stroman on short rest tomorrow night) or help themselves? Playoff demons? David Price has more than a few and the last time he threw a pitch to the Royals, they were spraying the ball around Kaufmann with large amounts of authority.
Having annointed Yordano Ventura a big game pitcher prior to the start of the post-season and subsequently been disappointed by my proclamation, I still feel good about a Ventura-Price showdown in Kansas City. That is all feel and no fact, mind you, but I feel good about Game Six. It is quite obviously, the game the Royals need to win as all the pressure will rain down on them should this series go to Game Seven. It is time for a Ventura gem.
Cueto in Game Seven? Don’t worry about it. Royals win in six.
Unlike Monday night in Toronto, on Tuesday the Royals grabbed the quick lead and never let go.
The script was the same for the opening scene. Just like so many others this October, Alcides Escobar started the game by reaching base. Yes, he swung at the first pitch, but he missed that one. What we now call #PeakEsky was reached on the next pitch when he squared to bunt against the RA Dickey knuckleball and pushed one down the third base line, reaching when Josh Donaldson couldn’t get a handle. Ben Zobrist needed just two pitches to measure the knuckler before got one belt-high and sent it to the right of center.
A walk by Lorenzo Cain, a steal, a single by Eric Hosmer, and a passed ball netted another run. A Kendrys Morales ground out and a Mike Moustakas sacrifice fly checked the “productive outs” square off the Royals Offense bingo card and the Royals finished the inning with four runs.
Such a typical Royals offensive barrage. They needed just 22 pitches to power to four first inning runs. Quite simply, this is who they are. This is who they’ve been, especially in the postseason. The gameplan seems to be to swing early and often, attempting to “ambush” the starting pitcher. With the only AL team in the postseason with experience, maybe they’re trying to string together some early hits to rattle the cage. Maybe they’re just in a damn hurry to score some early runs to turn the game over to the bullpen. Maybe they’re so good at making contact, this is the best way to approach the game.
Sometimes the ambush works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Credit to this team they have actively changed their approach when it hasn’t, saving some of their best plate appearances for the later innings of close games. They didn’t really need to make that change on Tuesday.
With a four run lead before he set foot on the mound, Chris Young was tasked with holding the lead long enough to get hand it over to the bullpen. It seems weird to have that mindset about a starting pitcher, but if anyone was going to struggle in Toronto against the Blue Jays, you would figure it to be a starting pitcher with a profile like Young. He’s been an inspired free agent signing by Dayton Moore and company, providing much needed rotation depth. But pitting an extreme fly ball pitcher – his 59 percent fly ball rate is the highest in baseball among pitchers with more than 120 innings – against a power-mad team like the Blue Jays, seems like a recipe for trouble.
It wasn’t. Not even close.
As Young has all season, he’s proved the doubters (like me) wrong. Another brilliant effort. He threw 78 pitches on the afternoon. Fifty of them were fastballs, averaging just under 88 mph. Another 28 were sliders, clocking in at 80 mph. He threw a first pitch strike to 11 of 19 batters faced and recorded 10 swings and misses.
Young made it a point to work inside against the Jays right-handed thunder. His pitch plot from Brooks Baseball against those hitters reveals a plan he executed fairly well. Note the cluster of dark red (fouls) on the inside, just off the zone and also notice the absence of any pitch on the outer quarter of the plate.
The Jays bats weren’t able to get full extension, neutralizing their power. Most of the contact came against Young’s slider.
Young was simply brilliant. Calm and composed, he was the anti-Cueto. Before the game, I said best-case scenario would be for him to go five innings and allow just two runs. He didn’t quite make five, but with the Royals bullpen depth, it doesn’t really matter so much. The only time Young found himself in trouble was when he faced the top of the Jays order for the second time. He got the first two outs of the fifth and the order turned over for a third time. Ben Revere singled, and with the bats of Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista looming, Ned Yost rightly summoned the bullpen calvary.
It was a tremendous effort from Young. Following the game, he talked about the loss of his father and how he’s dealt with the sorrow through these last couple of weeks. Brilliantly chronicled by McCullough, it’s required reading.
After Dickey was removed from the game in the second, the Royals bats fell silent against old friend Liam Hendriks. The Jays desperately needed a band-aid, and Hendriks provided it, picking Escobar off second to get out of the second inning without throwing a pitch and then delivering four solid innings. It was his longest outing of the season.
If Hendriks applied the band-aid, the rest of the bullpen ripped it right off over the next three frames. The next three Blue Jay relievers couldn’t get anyone out without handing over some runs. A tight 5-2 game turned into a 14-2 laugher. If the goal was to escape Toronto with a minimum of one win, consider mission accomplished. They own a 3-1 series lead and have three chances to close out the series, the final two of which could come at Kauffman Stadium*.
The Royals now stand one game away from a return trip to the World Series. They are one game away from mounting a successful defense of their AL Championship. They are one game away from establishing themselves as a mini-dynasty. These are amazing baseball times.
One had to expect there would be a game like last night at some point in the ALCS. You know, one where the Blue Jays just score too many runs. When a 95 win team with the best record in the first half of the season faces a 93 win team with the best record in the second half of the season, expecting a sweep is simply not realistic.
It would have been unreasonable to expect Johnny Cueto to throw another eight inning two hit gem, but reasonable to expect something other than a two inning eight run four walk disaster that he ended up providing in front of a national audience that no doubt included the five or six men contemplating throwing millions of dollars at him this off-season.
Cueto simply could not locate a pitch. Were the Royals being too cute with multiple signs and Perez waiting to the last second to set his target? Were they a little too worried about what the Blue Jays may or may not be doing? I don’t know, maybe. I do know Cueto was awful last night.
That said, this is a talented Toronto lineup that scored 137 more runs this season than any other team. They were due, after amassing just three runs in the first two games to explode and they did. They are a dramatically better team playing in Rogers Centre than anywhere else and it showed. It was bound to happen.
Now, the Royals did not curl up in a ball and whimper.
Kris Medlen, after serving up a giant home run to Josh Donaldson (possibly the only player in the league who makes me say ‘you know Eric Hosmer’s haircut isn’t that bad’) allowed only one other run in FIVE big innings of relief. He was tagged for a solo shot by Ryan Goins, but was otherwise pretty much untouchable. The outing was huge in that it allowed Ned Yost to save really all of his bullpen for better days.
On the offensive side, down seven, the Royals scratched a couple of runs across in the fifth courtesy of Alcides Escobar and Ben Zobrist, who accounted for six of the team’s eight runs and seven of their fifteen hits. They could not muster any other challenge in sixth, allowing the Blue Jays to milk an extra four outs out of the only marginally effective Marcus Stroman.
In the end, however, the Royals made it interesting, plating four runs in the top of the ninth with still two outs to play with. I did not truly feel as though Kansas City was going to make it all the way back, but it was enough to force Toronto to go to their closer to finish the game. In fact, despite leading by six and seven runs most of the night and winning by three, the Blue Jays did use their top three relievers last night, while the Royals saved everyone that they would use in a close game. That could prove to be an important fact today and tomorrow.
More than anything, last night’s contest pointed out just how different these two teams are. The Royals had 15 hits and one walk, the Blue Jays 11 hits and six walks. The Jays scored six of their runs via the long ball, the Royals just two (and that in the game’s last inning). Also, at least one Blue Jay thinks it is cool to wear eye black..indoors…at night.
Last night’s game was an example of what we all knew this series would be: a test to see if the Royals can put the ball in play more than the Blue Jays can hit it over the fence.
As Craig detailed yesterday, the Royals will send Chris Young to the mound this afternoon and hope the tall soft thrower who believes in the fly ball can somehow keep those balls on Lorenzo Cain’s side of the fence. In turn the Blue Jays will throw knuckle balling R.A. Dickey out in hopes he can guide the Royals’ balls towards Troy Tulowitzki’s glove, where we know the induce glare of indoor baseball will not effect the Toronto shortstop.
The baseball post-season is littered with unlikely heroes. The Royals need Chris Young, the exact opposite kind of pitcher one would logically like to see facing the Blue Jays in Toronto, to be one of those unlikely heroes and give them a stranglehold on this series.
An October off day yielded some news.
As the Royals worked out in Toronto and the bullpen recharged their arms for another game, manager Ned Yost announced that Chris Young would be the starter of Game Four on Tuesday.
It’s an interesting choice, given that the Blue Jays have pulverized pitching in their home yard and Young profiles as the most extreme fly ball pitcher in the league. No team in the AL has hit more home runs than the Jays 232. No pitcher who threw more than 120 innings had a higher fly ball rate than Young’s 58 percent.
Young pitched sparingly after he was moved the the bullpen following a July 28th start. He made just 10 relief appearances, throwing 12 innings. The results were OK, though. He allowed five runs and struck out 10 with a 3.65 ERA. He limited opponents to a .212 BABIP. Pushed to the rotation when it was clear Jeremy Guthrie would not be an adequate October option, Young excelled again. In two starts to close out the regular season, he threw 11 innings and allowed just 1 run while striking out seven. Included in that was the September 27 start in the Royals home finale against Cleveland he threw the day after his father passed away. On a team with many great individual stories, Young’s may be the most inspirational.
Next, Young was tasked with keeping Game One of the ALDS under control after the exit of starter Yordano Ventura following a rain delay. Against the power bats of Houston, Young did his job. His final line on the evening was 4 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 7 SO. His first six outs were recorded via the strikeout. His only mistake was a pitch to George Springer that was crushed to left.
There’s talk that Young has “earned” this start and I’m certainly not going to argue that. He has been an outstanding addition to the roster and has gotten the job done nearly every time he’s taken the ball. I think the Royals like the match-up. Here are Young’s splits against the likely Blue Jays starters he has faced more than 10 times.
Josh Donaldson – 16 PA, .063/.063/.063
Jose Bautista – 18 PA, .188/.278/.250
Russell Martin – 36 PA, .300/.417/.367
Troy Tulowitzki – 15 PA, .182/.400/.182
You can see why Yost would like this match-up. Managers and announcers love their small sample sizes and if you’re going to make that play, why not Young?
The other option to start would be Kris Medlen. In his recovery from a second Tommy John surgery, he’s been inconsistent since rejoining the rotation, but he did finish the season strongly, with a 3.00 ERA over his final 27 innings, spanning five starts. Medlen, also would figure to neutralize the Jays power bats with his ground ball rate that hovers around 50 percent.
However, Medlen hasn’t pitched since making his final regular season start on October 1. That means the last time he took the ball was 19 days ago. You can understand how the Royals would be a little gun shy to give him the start at this point.
Win on Monday and Tuesday’s pitcher could be rendered irrelevant. In the history of seven game series in baseball, only once has a team come back from 3-0 down to win the series.
The Royals turn to Johnny Cueto today, one start removed from his tour de force in Game Five. It will be interesting to see how Cueto does in a less friendly atmosphere. Let’s face it, the Jays fans have been reawakened much like Royals fans were last year in the playoffs. While the Royals never felt the heat of a 2-0 deficit in 2014, you can bet they won’t be afraid to make themselves heard. And remember, this is the first Jays home game since their own Game Five victory. A game they came very close to forfeiting thanks to the behavior of their fans.
Game Five Cueto had a laser focus. He was going to justify that trade and was locked in with every single pitch. That kind of intensity is difficult to bring to the mound on a consistent basis. It could be difficult for Cueto to find his rhythm in a hostile environment.
Still, the Royals are in a great position. How could you not like a 2-0 lead at this stage? And with Ned Yost pushing the October buttons, how can you argue against anything? Ned Yost does not care for your foolish stats. At this point, he could throw the corpse of Jonathan Sanchez out there and get 6 innings of 2 run baseball. We are back to the point we found ourselves last October when nearly every single move Yost made was the right move. The guy continues to live right. So if he says Young is his guy, we can certainly question the logic, but he’s earned the right for us to wait for the results.
However the Jays aren’t going to stop playing. Not by a long shot. They’re moving home where they have the best home field advantage in the league. They may have been kicked by the comeback kids on Sunday, but you can bet their bats will not go quietly.
It’s now up to Cueto and Young to keep them silent.
The American League Championship Series, featuring the Kansas City Royals for the second straight year, starts tonight. Without question, the two best teams in the AL – despite some ALDS tribulations – are squaring off. It is what we expected, what we anticipated and likely is going to be a great series. Hey, that these two teams don’t much care for one another just adds to the fun.
The Royals, long installed as baseball’s badboys, played in the only series that did not feature accusations, bench clearings and controversy. Surely, however, Kansas City was somehow to blame for the Rangers and Blue Jays melees right? Jake Diekmann after all is from Nebraska, so is Alex Gordon and likely it was Alex (at the urging of Yordano Ventura) who got Jake to rile up Sam Dyson to the point that he would have the audacity to say something to a saint like Troy Tulowitzki! Okay, just joking around…
The Royals do jump around, flip bats, yap, tip their hats and have elaborate celebrations in mid-game. They are not above throwing inside and not inclined to ignore the yapping from the other dugout. That is who they are. They are not headhunters and constant instigators. In fact, of the handful (and it was JUST a handful, national media people) of incidents this year, the only opposing team that was likely totally innocent was the Angels.
The Blue Jays flip bats (at times with epic grace – I’m serious, Jose Bautista’s flip on Wednesday was outstanding), they yell and yap and stare people down. They crowd the plate and throw inside. They don’t take any crap and dish out plenty of ‘baseball advice’ to the other team during the game. Has Josh Donaldson stopped talking yet? I will be honest, I don’t have a problem with any of it.
I love baseball played with emotion. I don’t mind a team doing any of the above any more than I mind when two guys from opposing squads share a light-hearted moment on the bases. You can be mad and play well. You can joke around with the other team and still play hard. It is all fine.
The Blue Jays seem to have a problem with a team doing any of the things that they themselves do. Bautista is a big ‘staredown guy’ when one throws inside, but when Blue Jay Aaron Sanchez buzzed someone inside, that’s just good pitching. Bat flips? Love them and so does Bautista, but god forbid Eric Hosmer flips one after a home run in Game One. You don’t get to be loud and intimidating and flashy and then become incensed when the other side is doing the same thing.
This could be a tremendous series both in terms of pure baseball and with regard to being emotionally charged. I look forward to it, but let’s also remember that both teams get to be emotional. And let’s keep the beer cans and cups in the stands, okay?
Relevant data points:
Shortly, the ALCS roster will be out. I would not anticipate many (any?) changes from the ALDS. Again, where exactly do you see Jonny Gomes pinch-hitting in this series? If you cannot envision a likely scenario (the only one I come up with is Gore pinch runs for Morales, game goes extra innings and his spot comes up in the order) then you probably can count on Paulo Orlando as ‘man 25’.
A more intriguing question might be would you pitch Volquez, Ventura and Cueto on three days rest in the ALCS. Volquez goes in Game One and Ventura in Game Two, both on regular rest as does Cueto in Game Three. Do you go with Kris Medlen in Game Four or Volquez on three days rest? How about Ventura on three days rest in Game Five or Cueto on three days in Game Six? Does Ned Yost dare do that with all three starters? I might consider it.
Is just the idea of bringing one, two or three starters back on short rest enough to drop one of the six outfielders and carry another reliever? Given that pitching Chris Young in any of the three games in Toronto is not a best case scenario, that might be in consideration already.
The fun starts tonight and while there might be some whining, some glaring, some flipping (from both sides) it will indeed be fun.
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.
Sometimes, the Baseball Gods smile. Sometimes, circumstances align to give fans a gift. A moment that can define a season. Or a career.
Johnny Cueto’s start today is such an event.
Cueto, acquired in a trade deadline deal by Dayton Moore, was not brought to Kansas City to win a division. The Royals already had a sizable lead when Moore pulled the trigger on a trade sending three left-handers to Cincinnati. No, the Royals brought Cueto to KC for the postseason. To start in big games. For moments like these.
All postseason starts are large, but they are not all created equal. I don’t need to tell you, today is massive. This is Game Five of a best of five game series. This is the most important start of the 2015 season for the Royals and it’s the biggest game of Cueto’s career. One start. A handful of innings. That’s what will define Cueto’s tenure in the Royals starting rotation. Success or flop, it all hinges on what happens when he grips the ball and stands 60 feet and six inches from Sal Perez at little after seven o’clock on Wednesday evening.
Trades are rarely tidy. Fans and pundits alike want to pass judgement quickly, but it’s never that simple. Today, Royals fans feel great about the Zack Greinke trade (come on down Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar) and the Wil Myers deal (thank you, Wade Davis) but at the time, both deals were universally panned. These things take time to resolve. The Cueto deal was not such a trade. Last July the Royals knew they needed to fortify their starting rotation heading into October. Moore explored the market, identified the best pitcher available, and made him a Royal. Moore gets massive credit for making this move. You may or may not believe in teams having windows of contention. No matter. Yet when you have opportunity, you’d better be ready to strike. The players Moore shipped to Cincinnati may develop into useful major leaguers and could provide value to the Reds for years. That won’t matter if Cueto steps up and becomes an integral part of a championship team.
The circumstances of Cueto’s arrival in Kansas City underscore just how unique this situation is. After nearly three decades of selling or inertia at the deadline, the Royals were buyers. Buyers. Because they were contenders. This is unchartered waters for Royals fans.
Then there is the reality that Cueto is a rental. He’s not a long-term Royal, nor was he ever meant to be. His is a mercenary mission. He’s a right arm for hire. A pitcher to be primed for two months before being unleashed in October. And Royals fans, who understand the economics of the game better than any fanbase, are fine with this setup. As long as Cueto delivers on his potential. It’s a potential we haven’t seen in full, so that’s why we are leery ahead of Game Five.
Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. In 213 starts for the Reds, Cueto posted a 3.21 ERA and 21.7 fWAR. We can quibble over the meaning of the word “ace,” but there can be no debate over Cueto’s status as a top-tier starting pitcher. Cueto’s performance since he switched his Reds for Royals blue has been underwhelming. Over a stretch of five starts he allowed 30 runs in over 26 innings. Woof. It wasn’t just a bad stretch for Cueto. It was a dismal run of starts he had never experienced before. Then came the excuses: He didn’t like where Sal Perez was setting his target. He was distracted by his impending free agency. Blah, blah, blah.
Everyone assumed that Cueto would front the Royals rotation in the postseason. Their large lead would enable the team to shuffle the starters to ensure Cueto would get the baseball in Game One. Except his struggles, combined with the second half surge of Yordano Ventura, meant that Cueto would be pushed back to Game Two. And now here we are.
Honestly, none of the struggles that Cueto has endured in Royals blue matters. It didn’t matter at the time. It doesn’t matter now.
The August 10th four hit shutout against the Tigers? A nice moment, but irrelevant. The September 13 start against the Orioles where he coughed up eight runs in over six innings? Not so nice. Equally irrelevant. Those starts are meaningless because he wasn’t brought here to win or lose games in August or September. He was brought here to front the rotation in October. He was charged with leading the Royals deep into the postseason.
Calling the trade a bust or questioning Cueto’s ace status has been a premature exercise. Judgement was going to be simple and it was going to wait until October. Judgement will likely come today.
The Royals need Cueto. They paid the market rate for a top-notch starting pitcher and they need him to be on his game to get them to the ALCS. And Cueto needs the Royals. He needs this opportunity to wash away the taste of a middling stretch run that could ultimately cost him dollars on the free agent market. He needs to prove that he can be the man in the big situation.
The only thing that matters is what happens on that circular patch of dirt in the middle of The K in Game Five of the ALDS. Just like Dayton Moore drew it up back in late July.