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Solid Cueto a sight for sore eyes

Ace looks more like himself after five-game skid, much to delight of Royals

DETROIT -- Johnny Cueto looked a great deal like Johnny Cueto on Friday night.

This was not Cueto at the absolute top of his game. But this was Cueto being good enough to win. And that is very, very good.

So, the outlook for the Kansas City Royals looked better than it had in five weeks, which was the last time Cueto pitched well. Cueto's friends and colleagues on the Royals could look upon their postseason chances with, if they felt like it, unblemished optimism.

After a five-start slump, Cueto produced a commendable outing against the Detroit Tigers in the Royals' 5-4, 12-inning loss. He gave up two runs in seven-plus innings, on eight hits, with one walk and four strikeouts.

"I was in rhythm, I felt really good," Cueto said through an interpreter. "That's how I'm supposed to feel."

Cueto appeared to be increasingly in command as the game went on, after giving up one run in the first inning.

"I felt good," he said. "I felt stronger as the game went on."

The key word for the Royals observing Cueto's work on this night was "encouraging."

"I thought Johnny threw the ball really well," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "The first inning, with the 20-minute delay, he gave up three hits and one run, and from that point on, he went straight into shutdown mode. Got us into the eighth inning, 1-1 ballgame, executed his pitches, I thought he kept the ball down really well.

"I thought he pitched great. It was very encouraging to see that. It was very encouraging tonight."

"Encouraging" seemed to cover the necessary territory. Cueto was not involved in the decision, but before the game reached extra innings, there was, in essence, a pitchers' duel between two aces, Cueto and Justin Verlander, himself an ace who has spent the second half of this season re-establishing his position among the game's elite pitchers. Salvador Perez tied the game in the ninth with a two-run homer, but only after Verlander had been lifted.

The Royals are encouraged because there is so much riding on Cueto's performance. He was brought to the Royals to be the No. 1 starter, the ace, the pitcher who could be good enough to make the difference between being a World Series team and a World Series champion.

Over his first seven weeks with the club, he appeared to be two distinctly different pitchers. During his first four starts for Kansas City, after being obtained from Cincinnati in a trade, Cueto looked very much like the pitcher the Royals wanted. He had a 1.80 ERA over those four starts, and threw a shutout against the Tigers.

But over his next five starts, Cueto was hit -- early and often. In those five outings, from Aug. 21 through last Sunday, Cueto had a 9.57 ERA and suffered a career-high five-game losing streak.

So there was a significant amount riding on Friday night's start, even though the Royals' lead in the American League Central remained somewhere between comfortable and insurmountable. Could Cueto, even after his recent struggles, be the man for the Royals and their rotation?

Based on this performance, certainly, absolutely definitely.

The Royals had worried that Cueto might be putting too much pressure on himself.

Yost said they wanted him to be, well, Johnny Cueto.

"Just be himself," the manager said. "Don't try to take too much of the load upon his own shoulders. Johnny Cueto being Johnny Cueto is really, really good."

There may have been issues with an adjustment to a different league, to different hitters. There was considerable work done on "getting on the exact same wavelength" with his catcher, Perez.

Through Cueto's recent struggles, the Royals had not lost confidence in their new ace.

"I think he's going to have a great start tonight," Yost said before this game. "But I've thought that the last three or four starts, too. I just think he's going to be terrific tonight and get on a good roll."

The fine performance Friday night was converted from a hope to a fact. Next up would be Cueto getting on that roll.

This is what the Royals need to take that one last step to the top of the game. They're going to be in the postseason either way. But they'll be much more formidable with Johnny Cueto at the top of his game.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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