Thursday, October 29, 2015

New Kid In Town: Johnny Cueto and the Gift of Persistence

For a moment on Wednesday Night, the New York Mets held a lead. Lucas Duda had scored Daniel Murphy on a soft hit to left field. Just as it happened the night before, Kansas City made sure the Mets' advantage was short-lived. On the mound was the Royals' trade-deadline acquisition Johnny Cueto, making his career World Series debut. The man who was famously a victim of the Pirates' home crowd two years ago in the Wild Card game was given a chance to redeem himself on the national stage. At no point did Cueto seem like he was outright baffling the New York offense, but inning after inning he kept them from finding home.
As I have said many times in the three seasons I've written for this blog, baseball loves to forgive. There is a natural element to it that requires a player to forget past shortcomings if he is to survive a long career. Slumps will plague the best of hitters, Cy Young Award winning pitchers will be knocked out of the box before finishing an inning. The best of these learn to shove aside their mistakes and learn from them. When Johnny Cueto first arrived in Kansas City, the expectation was that he would be the ace and final piece to a championship season. A telling factor of his initial disappointment comes when we look at his numbers in his short time as a Royal.

Batting average on balls in play is a measurement determining the ability of the defense behind the pitcher to get outs on balls hit in-play. A higher number generally indicates that a pitcher allowed more hits that were beyond the natural play ability of the defense. What is fascinating to me is how Cueto's BABIP jumped from .237 to .345 as he moved from Cincinnati to Kansas City. There were many times during the last few months of the season that people were speculating whether or not the trade had worked in the Royals' favor. Cueto started thirteen games for them, and he had been charged with the loss in seven. His earned run average ballooned to 4.76 and it appeared as if his detractors were being proven correct.

After getting out of the fourth inning, Cueto settled down. The tension that had mounted from the often scrappy Mets' offense was being swallowed yet again by the now standard crowd noise that resembled a squad of jets taking off within a broom closet. Through the fifth, the Kansas City bats awoke from their slumber. Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas each singled to drive in their share of the four runs the Royals dropped on Jacob deGrom. Cueto could now control the game.

To this point, Johnny Cueto's most famous start was his three and one-third innings in the 2013 National League Wild Card Game. Never had I witnessed a crowd defeat a pitcher in that way. Fortunately for Cueto, the Royals were too good and the Central Division was too bad to need a Wild Card playoff. Given the outcome of the All-Star Game, the Royals were  to have guaranteed home-field advantage as long as they stayed alive. In his last start, game three of the American League Championship Series, Cueto had been embarrassed, giving up eight runs and only completing two innings. More than maybe anyone alive, a home crowd was just what Johnny needed.

In the eighth, it was as if the Royals' hitters couldn't miss if they tried. They added three runs to their lead, padding the score to 7-1. The force of nature that is the Kansas City order had given Johnny Cueto the green light to finish what he started.

Once the game was in-hand, there were not many opportunities for Cueto to falter. He retired seventeen of the last nineteen Mets he faced. Aside from a Daniel Murphy walk, the ninth was a cakewalk. On Johnny's 122nd pitch, Yoenis Cespedes popped out to end the game. The four strikeouts over nine innings were uncharacteristically low, but the only stats that mattered were these- 9.0IP, 1R, W. Johnny Cueto had pitched the first complete game in the World Series by an American League pitcher since Jack Morris' timeless 10-inning game seven outing in 1991.

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