Cueto to start Game 2 at home, sweet home
KANSAS CITY -- Like few others before him, Johnny Cueto has become a target for fans in opponents' ballparks. A sold-out Rogers Centre crowd mockingly chanted his name early in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Oct. 19, then sardonically called for his return after he had given up eight runs by the third inning.
That derision -- reminiscent of what he experienced at PNC Park as a member of the Reds during the National League Wild Card Game of 2013 -- seems to unnerve Cueto. And it's a big reason why manager Ned Yost elected to start him in Wednesday's Game 2, in front of a more welcoming atmosphere at Kauffman Stadium (air time 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX, game time at 8).
"He, more than anybody else, really draws that energy from our fans," Yost said of Cueto, who will oppose Jacob deGrom in hopes of giving the Royals a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven Series following Tuesday's 5-4 win in 14 innings. "We just felt it was the best move."
The move pushes Yordano Ventura to Game 3 in New York and lines up Cueto to start a potential Game 6 in Kansas City.
Cueto struggled after coming to the Royals in late July, posting a 4.98 ERA on the road and a 4.50 ERA at home. But Kauffman Stadium -- with the largest outfield in baseball, at just a shade over 100,000 square feet -- is the place that hosted his signature start, Game 5 of the AL Division Series, when he limited the Astros to two runs in eight innings.
"It doesn't matter to me whether I pitch on the road or at home," Cueto said, "but I do feel more comfortable when I pitch here."
Two years ago, in the NL Wild Card Game, a raucous, sold-out PNC Park crowd began a serenade of "Cue-to! Cue-to! Cue-to!" Cueto was clearly affected, allowing four runs on eight hits in 3 1/3 innings of an eventual loss.
The Rogers Centre crowd in Toronto borrowed from that playbook this October, and Mets fans at Citi Field likely would have done the same had Cueto's turn fallen in Queens.
Asked why he's become such a target for opposing fans, Cueto smiled wide and deflected the question.
"Fans are always going to come after you if you're pitching badly," Cueto said. "But that's normal. That's how fans are. I can't let that affect me. I like for them to make noise. It elevates me."
Cueto began the 2015 season with a 2.62 ERA in his first 19 starts with the Reds, then came over in the July 26 trade that sent three pitching prospects -- Cody Reed, Brandon Finnegan and John Lamb -- to Cincinnati. The Royals had their ace, and early on, while allowing only six runs in his first 30 innings, Cueto pitched like one.
Then came a five-start stretch that saw him go 0-5 with a 9.57 ERA.
"My opinion was he kind of got away from who he was," pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "He was sort of nibbling. He didn't go on the attack. He worked the edges too soon. He was throwing a lot more breaking balls. He wasn't throwing his fastball. Why? He can only answer that."
Cueto finished the regular season with a 3.24 ERA in his last four starts, then struggled with his command in Game 2 of the ALDS -- allowing four runs and 10 baserunners in six innings -- and vowed to display "the real Johnny Cueto" in Game 5. He responded by retiring 19 consecutive Astros in the most important start of his career, a start Eiland believes "erased everything he did leading up to that."
Five days later, though, Cueto struggled in front of a hostile crowd in Toronto, becoming the first pitcher since at least 1900 to give up eight or more earned runs and collect six or fewer outs in a postseason game.
As he walked off the field, he smiled, his frustrations masked by a surprising touch of humor.
"People seem to forget Game 5 of the ALDS faster than my last start," said Cueto, who will make his first World Series start on eight days' rest.
"He's a grown man," Eiland added. "That's why we got him. He needs to grow up, like he did in Game 5 of the ALDS."