KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The complete game has become an endangered species in baseball. So when Johnny Cueto ran out of the dugout to finish off a 7-1 victory over the New York Mets in Game 2 of the World Series, the 40,410 fans in attendance at Kauffman Stadium greeted him with a rousing and prolonged ovation.
Cueto’s personal fan club included a bunch of professional peers spitting sunflower seeds and chewing gum behind a fence in front of a big red “StateFarm Neighborhood” sign near the left-field corner. Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and the rest of the Kansas City Royals‘ relievers weren’t bold or imaginative enough to expect a full night off. But after sucking it up for eight innings and dozens more warmup tosses in a 14-inning victory Tuesday, they certainly appreciated the gesture of solidarity.
“I said, ‘When he goes back out there, the crowd better go nuts,'” reliever Ryan Madson said. “Luke Hochevar was sitting next to me and he just said, ‘Yeah.’ When they did, we both just looked at each other. That was a cool moment.”
Cueto has gone through multiple incarnations since coming to Kansas City from Cincinnati in a late July trade-deadline deal. He was first hailed as the missing piece at the top of the Royals’ rotation, and the ace who could stare down David Price or Cole Hamels in the playoffs or Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta or whomever Kansas City went on to face in the World Series.
When Cueto logged an 0-5 record with a 9.57 ERA over a span of five starts in August and September, alarm bells went off among the Kansas City faithful. Then reports surfaced that he just needed some time to build a rapport and a comfort level with Royals catcher Salvador Perez, and everyone took a deep breath. Cueto began to right himself down the stretch, and it seemed possible that he could be an October difference-maker just yet.
But the truth of the matter is, the Royals don’t know quite what they’ll get from one appearance to the next. Cueto was great at home against Houston to close out the division series, and roadkill in his last appearance against Toronto at Rogers Center during the league championship series.
Is he the guy who’s so hyper-sensitive to the mock “Cue-to! Cue-to!” chant that seemingly unnerved him during the postseason in 2013 in Pittsburgh that he needs to pitch in a glass-encased bubble when the postseason comes around?
Teams with an interest in paying Cueto nine figures as a free agent will have lots of time to address that question in November and December. For the moment, he’s still reveling in the satisfaction of a job well-done.
Cueto received a postgame Gatorade bath after his two-hitter versus the Mets, and the brilliance of his performance substantiated why manager Ned Yost was so intent to have him pitch Game 2 and be available for Game 6 in the event the series returns to Kansas City next week.
“I felt Johnny thrives in this environment and he’s comfortable in this park,” Yost said. “He loves our fans. He feeds off their energy. I just felt very, very strongly that he was going to put up a great performance, and he did.”
Cueto is in some impressive company. He became the first pitcher to throw at least nine innings and allow two or fewer hits since Atlanta’s Greg Maddux achieved the feat in Game 1 of the 1995 World Series against Cleveland. The last AL pitcher to do that in the World Series was Boston’s Jim Lonborg, in Game 2 of the 1967 Fall Classic against St. Louis.
The performance was an endorsement for the grab-bag assortment that allows Cueto to compete at such a high level when everything is clicking. On the way to his 122-pitch complete game, he threw 61 fastballs, 26 cutters, 20 sliders and 15 changeups.
“He threw three or four different pitches for strikes in any count,” Mets third baseman David Wright said. “And then he kind of keeps you off balance with the quick pitch. And then he kind of takes his time a little bit. As a hitter, it’s all about timing. He disrupted it tonight, for sure.”
Cueto’s starts are always entertaining because of his Luis Tiant-esque delivery, his expressiveness on the mound, and his ability to beat hitters with deception and various mechanisms to mess with their heads. If his fellow pitchers appreciate that facet of his game more than most, it’s because they understand the athleticism and work ethic required to pull off all those spins, twists and swivels.
“I’ve had a hard time repeating one delivery — let alone seven,” Royals lefty Danny Duffy said. “He’s legit.”
Ingenuity plays a major role for Cueto on nights that he’s more crafty than overwhelming. Cueto dominated the Mets even though he induced swings-and-misses on only 6.1 percent of his pitches in Game 2. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that was his lowest rate in a start since 2009.
Before the World Series began, one preordained storyline chafed on certain segments of the Kansas City clubhouse. While the Royals were given props for their bullpen, defense and relentless, grind-it-out offense, the rotation was generally regarded as an obstacle to overcome. And why not? Among the 10 postseason rotations this year, Kansas City ranked 10th and last with a 4.34 starters’ ERA.
During World Series media day on Monday, Kansas City pitching coach Dave Eiland defended his starters and promised they would show up against the Mets.
“Personally, I couldn’t care less what anybody is saying,” Eiland said. “I don’t look at numbers. I look at wins. People can criticize our rotation all they want to, but I’ll tell you what: There’s probably less than a handful of games all year long that we were out of by the second or third inning. We gave up runs, but our starters kept us in the game.
“In this market, where you can’t have three or four $15-20 million [starters], we’ve built it from back to front, and it’s worked for us. People get paid to analyze and critique. I get paid to get pitchers ready to get guys out.”
Through two games and 15 innings, Kansas City’s starters have obliged. Edinson Volquez, pitching on a drama-laden night against the backdrop of his father’s death back home in the Dominican Republic, gutted out six innings in the opener. And Cueto raised the bar, becoming the first Latino pitcher to throw a complete game in the World Series since the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela went the distance against the Yankees in 1981.
If the Mets can take two of three games at Citi Field over the weekend and bring it back to Kansas City, Cueto will be ready. And if the Royals wrap it up in New York, he can go into free agency with the memory of that jog to the mound in the ninth inning, the sound of thousands of adoring fans cheering him, and the cold flash of a postgame bath from his catcher, Salvador Perez.
It would be one heck of a parting gift.