'I'm just having fun': Cueto stops Royals cold

Veteran right-hander logs 7 K's in sharp debut before Robert's HR wins it in 10th

May 17th, 2022

KANSAS CITY -- Watching Johnny Cueto pitch, with all his twists and turns, all his stops and starts, quickly becomes a dizzying experience.

So, just imagine how tough it was for the Royals to hit the White Sox starter during Chicago’s 5-3 victory in 10 innings -- thanks to a Luis Robert two-run homer -- on Monday night at Kauffman Stadium to begin a rare five-game set.

Cueto’s White Sox debut marked the opening of his 15th season in the Major Leagues for his fourth team, and he was better than anyone in the organization could have expected.

“Throughout my career, I always have put a special emphasis on my first start of the season,” Cueto said through interpreter Billy Russo. “Then, I did it today, and I was just excited. I was facing a young team, a team that I used to play with and I was excited. I’m with a team that is a good team, too, with a lot of young talent.”

“Wow. That's the Johnny Cueto you've seen,” manager Tony La Russa said. “He's so deceptive and whatever the fastball is, it plays harder and he spots it. He's down and soft, and then all of a sudden he throws one by you. To be that sharp just shows you his talent and the work that he did to get ready.”

Cueto struck out the side in the first inning, joining Wilson Alvarez and Ravelo Manzanillo as the only White Sox pitchers to strike out all three hitters faced in the opening frame of an inaugural start. Cueto retired the first nine hitters before yielding Whit Merrifield’s leadoff single in the fourth, but the right-hander allowed just two hits over six innings to go with seven strikeouts and two walks.

In his 81 pitches, Cueto topped out at 93.5 mph, per Statcast, via a sixth-inning sinker thrown to Salvador Perez. Cueto employed a five-pitch mix, although only two curves. Even when he was clearly tiring during his final frame, Cueto was able to strike out Perez with runners on first and second to preserve the three-run lead.

Saving his highest velocity for the end was by design.

“That’s what I work for,” Cueto said. “I know that I need to save energy through my outing. And then once I know that my last balls are going to be thrown, then I just go for more.”

“You're not going to see the same pitch twice, you're probably not going to see the same slot twice,” said Royals manager Mike Matheny of Cueto, who pitched for Kansas City during its World Series title run in 2015.

“Probably not going to see the same windup twice. So he is constantly messing with the timing of a hitter, and that's pitching. He executed when he had to."

Chicago added the 36-year-old free-agent Cueto via a Minor League deal at the start of April shortly after Lance Lynn injured his right knee at the end of Spring Training. Cueto would earn $4.2 million upon reaching the White Sox, but he first followed a plan laid out by the team involving a couple of starts at extended spring training in Arizona and four with Triple-A Charlotte.

When Cueto moved his pitch count right around 80 in his last start for the Knights, he felt Major League ready again.

“The No. 1 thing we needed from him was as long as he had to pitch effectively to give us a chance to win,” La Russa said. “To go six shutout innings is more than ... but you can't be surprised, because that's what he has been his whole career."

“It was very good,” Robert said of Cueto, through Russo. “I was pleased because he was pitching fast and we know tomorrow we have two games.”

There was no individual win for Cueto’s solid effort, as the Royals scored three off reliever Kendall Graveman in the eighth inning to erase a 3-0 deficit. Robert delivered the two-out game-winner, and Liam Hendriks closed out the victory by striking out the side and returning the White Sox to .500 at 17-17.

Next up for Cueto ... Well, the White Sox have yet to announce a second starter for Tuesday’s doubleheader, so start No. 2 remains unknown. La Russa said pregame it would be disappointing if Cueto wasn’t a contributing factor for the rest of the season, with having too many quality starters being a good problem.

And Cueto, with all his mound gyrations, did nothing to change that notion in his debut.

“I’ve been doing that throughout my whole career,” Cueto said. “Every time I’m on the mound, I’m just having fun. That’s a way for me to have fun, too.”