50 Greatest Kauffman Stadium Moments, #18: Cueto’s Ace Outing Moves Royals To ALCS (October 14, 2015)

Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.

At this juncture, it’s hard to picture the Houston Astros as likable, scrappy underdogs. But in 2015, that’s exactly what they were. Just two years removed from losing 111 games and not yet tainted by scandal, the Astros were an 86-76 team that just made it into the wild-card game, then beat the big, bad Yankees to advance to the ALDS against the Royals. They proceeded to give Kansas City all they could handle in the first four games, and only the miraculous comeback in the eighth inning of Game Four allowed the series to return to Kansas City for the deciding game.

Surely the Astros would have nothing left after that Royals’ comeback, right? To be six outs away from advancing, with a four-run lead, and to watch it go up in smoke, would be more than many teams, particularly a young one, could bear. 

But the Astros had other ideas (and yes, don’t call me Shirley).

With two outs in the second, Evan Gattis hit a grounder down the third-base line. Mike Moustakas snagged it, but with his momentum heading away from first base. His throw was wide of the bag, and Eric Hosmer tried to catch it and make a swipe tag in one motion, but couldn’t hang on to the ball. The play was ruled a single, and Luis Valbuena hit Johnny Cueto’s next pitch into the right-field bullpen for a 2-0 lead.

Meanwhile, Houston starter Collin McHugh was frustrating the Kansas City lineup. The Royals’ first two baserunners were promptly erased by double plays. At last, in the fourth inning, they stirred to life. Lorenzo Cain singled with one out. With a full count on Hosmer, Cain headed for second and kept going when Hosmer dumped a single into center field. Carlos Gomez slipped while fielding the ball, ending up on his backside, and Cain raced home with the Royals’ first run.

McHugh retired the next two hitters, but hit Salvador Perez with a pitch to start the fifth. Alex Gordon followed with a ground-rule double that bounced off the warning track and over the right-field fence. That meant Perez had to stop at third, but he wasn’t there long. Alex Rios greeted reliever Mike Fiers with a ground ball that went over the third-base bag and up the left-field line. Perez and Gordon scored to give the Royals the lead. Alcides Escobar put down a sacrifice bunt and Ben Zobrist hit a fly ball for a 4-2 lead.

Now the game was in Cueto’s hands. The Royals had acquired the veteran at the trade deadline, not so much for the division race which was hardly in doubt, but for big moments in the postseason. However, Cueto had been a source of concern for Royals fans, with a string of poor starts throughout September. He wasn’t great in Game Two, allowing four runs in six innings. But on this night, he was at his best. Following the Valbuena home run, Cueto retired 19 straight hitters. Cueto finished his eight innings with eight strikeouts, no walks, and just the two hits allowed. 

“I woke up today on the right foot. As soon as I woke up, I felt something magic, that this was Game 5 and I had to show up for everybody, for this team and the fans.”–Cueto, quoted by the Associated Press, October 15, 2015

“Johnny was phenomenal. He’s an ace. He struggled a little bit toward the end of the season, but he proved tonight that he is as advertised. He is that guy they thought he was coming over in the trade.”–Zobrist, quoted by Andy McCullough, Kansas City Star, October 15, 2015

Royals manager Ned Yost, with a rested bullpen at his disposal following an off-day, was ready to lift Cueto at the first sign of trouble. But he never had to make that move.

“Johnny Cueto was unbelievable. He knew the magnitude of this game. I think we all did. And he came out from the first pitch and had everything going.”–Yost, quoted by the Associated Press, October 15, 2015

The Royals removed all doubt about the outcome in the eighth. The Astros turned to Dallas Keuchel, their best starter, hoping to keep the game close for one last chance in the ninth inning. This move had some overtones, with the opponent’s left-handed ace coming on in relief a callback to Madison Bumgarner’s heroics in the previous fall’s World Series. But this time, the Royals were not going to be stopped. Escobar led off with a double. With one out, Keuchel intentionally walked Cain to face the left-handed Hosmer, which paid off with a popup. But switch-hitting Kendrys Morales provided the exclamation point on this one, driving a Keuchel pitch deep into the night. As Morales skipped down the first-base line and the Kansas City dugout emptied in celebration, the ball landed in the seats in left-center. Morales made a “cutthroat” gesture as he crossed the plate, a response to Houston’s Lance McCullers, who had made the same gesture in Game Four.

Royals closer Wade Davis pitched a perfect ninth to seal the series win and start the celebrations around Kansas City. 

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