Thursday, October 29, 2015

Game 2: Royals Roll

Cueto came up big last night for Kansas City (ABC News)
Six weeks ago, mired in perhaps the worst cold spell of his career, Johnny Cueto looked totally lost. After being one of the best pitchers in baseball during the first half, he'd come over to Kansas City in late July and promptly lost his mojo. He couldn't strike anybody out, and he was getting torched every time he took the mound. Over a four-week stretch his ERA approached 10. His transition to the American League was not going well, to say the least.

As his struggles persisted into mid-September, they raised alarm over whether Kansas City could rely on him come playoff time. The whole reason they'd got him was to bolster their middling rotation, which lacked a clear-cut number one without James Shields, and they believed that in order to win the World Series they needed an ace. When they acquired him, Cueto certainly qualified as such. Just one month later, however, he seemed completely broken.

That is, until pitching coach Dave Eiland fixed him. Eiland noticed Cueto's left shoulder flying open during his delivery, causing his pitches to flatten out. His cutter in particular had become straight as an arrow. He called Cueto in to have a look at the tape, and together they saw why the star pitcher was getting creamed.

Cueto was fine the rest of way, allowing three earned runs or fewer in each of his last starts. But Royals fans still had reason to be concerned. The final few weeks of the regular season amounted to garbage time for Kansas City, who'd locked up the AL Central before Cueto even arrived. How would he hold up during the most pressure-packed games of the season, especially after suffering an apparent "crisis of confidence" so late in the season?

Those doubts still lingered before last night's game, as Cueto had been shelled in his most recent outing against Toronto. The Blue Jays battered him for eight runs in two innings, teeing off on him like it was batting practice. It was by far his worst start of the season, worse than any of his late-summer beatings. His ERA since joining the Royals, postseason included, was now 5.27. With an unbeaten (in the postseason) Jacob deGrom lined up to face Cueto, Game 2 seemed likely to go New York's way.

Then the game started, and all of the sudden Cueto could do no wrong.
Cueto and the Royals celebrate their 7-1 victory over the Mets (Click2Houston)
Last night was a perfect example of why Dayton Moore traded for Cueto back in July, even with the playoffs all but assured by that point. When he's on, he's one of the best pitchers in the game.
Cueto delivered his best start since early August, spinning a complete game two-hitter as Kansas City trounced New York, 7-1. By GameScore, it was his best start since he shut out Detroit on August 10th. It was also the best postseason start of his career.

Kansas City's dreadlocked ace was dominant from the start, zipping through the first three innings while facing the minimum nine batters. He hit a snag his second time through the order, walking two and letting in the game's first run on a flare single by Lucas Duda with two outs in the fourth. Beyond that, though, Cueto was unstoppable. He retired the next 15 in a row, allowing just one baserunner (a Daniel Murphy walk) the rest of the way.

With Cueto starting opposite deGrom, Game 2 was billed as the best pitching matchup of the series. For the first half of the game, it certainly was. Both stumbled in the fourth, however, with Cueto surrendering the first run of the game and deGrom getting out of a bases loaded jam. But whereas Cueto settled down after his minor hiccup, deGrom disintegrated the very next inning.
The trouble started when Alex Gordon, the hero of Game 1, led off with a full-count walk.

Alex Rios, the Royals' most regrettable offseaon pickup, followed with a single to move Gordon up to second. That brought Alcides Escobar, who got the scoring started the previous night with his mad dash around the bases, to the plate. Once again, he delivered Kansas City's first run of the game, slapping a single up the middle that plated Gordon and tied the game.

After Ben Zobrist grounded out and Lorenzo Cain lined out, it looked like deGrom would escape the inning without further damage. Until Eric Hosmer, another Game 1 hero, struck again, poking a single up the middle that scored both Rios and Escobar. According to win probability added, it was the biggest play of the game, increasing Kansas City's chances of winning the game from 58 percent to 80 percent. Successive singles by Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas added another run to KC's ledger, improving their odds of victory to 87 percent by the end of the frame.

After that it was all Kansas City. Cueto cruised the rest of the way while New York's bullpen, summoned back into action after a taxing effort in Game 1, allowed three additional runs in the eighth to put the game out of reach. That also gave Cueto plenty of leeway with which to finish his start and saving Ned Yost the trouble of warming anyone up in case Cueto faltered. With a maximum of one more start this season (plus a possible Madison Bumgarner-esque relief effort if the series goes seven), the free agent-to-be was permitted to come back out for the ninth even though he'd already thrown 106 pitches. He finished the game having thrown 122.

Cueto did what deGrom could not--he saved the bullpen after an exhausting Game 1.
More importantly, he gave his team a commanding 2-0 series lead, bringing Kansas City to within two wins of its first World Series championship in 30 years.

Now, the Mets' championship hopes ride on a rookie starting pitcher who turned 23 two months ago. Make no mistake, Noah Syndergaard will be up to the challenge based on how he's performed up to this point, but you just never know how he'll handle this kind of pressure-cooker. He has to pitch knowing that if he loses, his team is in an 0-3 hole and their season is effectively over. That's a ton of pressure on a kid making his first World Series start.

The pitcher he's going up against, Yordano Ventura, isn't much older at 24. Ventura does have World Series experience, however, so he's been there before. His team is in the driver's seat, so he can pitch relatively worry-free.

While Game 2 was supposed to be a pitcher's duel, Game 3 has similar potential. Syndergaard and Ventura are two of the hardest throwers in the game today, which makes their matchup especially intriguing. Syndergaard's been the superior pitcher this year (in both the regular season and postseason), but Ventura does have that World Series experience to draw on. New York would seem to have the advantage, being at home with the better pitcher on the mound, but either hurtler is certainly capable of the kind of virtuoso performance Cueto enjoyed last night.

The Mets just better hope that their guy's better, because if not then they're finished.

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