The Kansas City Royals made a midseason trade for one of baseball’s best aces, and after three long months, it paid off on the biggest stage Wednesday night.
Pitcher Johnny Cueto was a hot commodity at the trade deadline, and the Royals, who were basically a lock to make the playoffs, needed a top pitcher.
Acquiring Cueto was a risk, however. The Royals gave up three promising pitching prospects for a pitcher who be a free agent after the season, and Cueto can be mercurial on the mound, ranging from dominant to undependable and was especially so in the weeks leading up to the deadline.
Cueto also missed a start in June and there were growing concerns that he was injured.
Through 13 starts with the Royals, Cueto wasn’t impressive, with a 4.76 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, and .2 WAR.
In the playoffs, Cueto’s hot-and-cold nature continued, with one solid and one shaky performance against the Astros, then a disaster performance against the Blue Jays in which he gave up eight runs in two innings.
However, in the World Series, on the biggest stage of Cueto’s career, he came through with a gem, helping the Royals to a 7-1 win in a crucial Game 2.
Cueto pitched a complete game, the first since in the World Series since 1991, giving up just two hits and one run while retiring the last 19 batters he faced. Cueto is the first AL pitcher since 1967 to give up only two hits in a complete game.
The one run he gave up wasn’t his fault, really. Yoenis Cespedes hit a grounder to third base and got the hit as Royals first basemen Eric Hosmer’s foot came off the bag. Lucas Duda then hit a single, that scored Daniel Murphy, who had been walked.
Where Cueto looked outmatched going into the game against Mets ace Jacob deGrom, deGrom got battered in a four-run fifth inning. Meanwhile, Cueto got his one hit out of the way in the fourth inning, then got stronger as the game went on.
As Grantland’s Jonah Keri noted, a stat called Game Score shows Cueto’s “boom-or-bust” tendencies. The highest all-time Game Score, which measures a pitcher’s overall performance in a game, is 105 and anything below 50 is considered bad. Here’s Cueto’s Game Scores through his four postseason starts, including the World Series:
ALDS Game 2: 44
ALDS Game 5: 78
ALCS Game 3: 10
WS Game 2: 80
As Deadspin’s Patrick Redford pointed out, Royals manager Ned Yost’s decision to start Cueto in a crucial Game 2 at home looks genius. Cueto’s debacle in the ALCS came in an away game, so Yost let him pitch at home. Nonetheless, it was as big of a gamble as trading for Cueto in the first place to become the team’s lone ace. The Royals won Game 1 by the skin of their teeth in a five-hour, 14-inning affair. Placing Cueto against deGrom, with the possibility of going to New York for Games 3, 4, and 5 with a 1-1 series was risky.
Instead, Cueto came up with the game of his life, the Royals have a 2-0 series lead, and Cueto’s work for the season might be done.
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