Thursday, October 15, 2015
With Small Steps, Royals Surge Past Astros and Return to the A.L.C.S.
It is always the little things, the innocuous things, for the Kansas City Royals, who seem to have this act down, clubbing their opponents to death with pillows and bleeding the life out of them with paper cuts.
The seeds of the Royals’ 7-2 victory over the Houston Astros on Wednesday in the fifth and deciding game of their American League division series were sown with the incidental and the accidental.
With the Royals once again in an early hole, and with the Kauffman Stadium crowd’s anxiety increasing, Lorenzo Cain checked his swing and hit a blooper that landed like a feather in right field. Then, running on a full-count pitch, Cain scored from first on Eric Hosmer’s single to center when Carlos Gomez, the Astros’ center fielder, slipped and fell.
The Royals were still behind in the fourth inning, but the play seemed to be a signal that they would soon be on their way, reawakening the crowd and the Kansas City offense, which provided plenty of support for the superb and stylistic pitching of Johnny Cueto.
When Kendrys Morales blasted a three-run homer, his third home run of the series, in the eighth inning, just about everyone in the stadium knew that the Royals were on their way back to the American League Championship Series.
The Royals, who were facing elimination Monday when they rallied from a four-run eighth-inning deficit to beat the Astros, 9-6, will host the Toronto Blue Jays — another team well versed in high drama — in Game 1 of the A.L.C.S. here on Friday.
Monday’s stirring win rekindled memories of last year’s wild-card game, when the Royals erased a four-run eighth-inning deficit to beat the Oakland Athletics in 12 innings, a victory the propelled them to the World Series and revived a long-dormant baseball town.
When the Astros arrived here for a workout on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after their Game 4 collapse, they did not appear to be awaiting their own funeral.
Marwin Gonzalez took batting practice in a shirt covered with cartoon characters. Carlos Correa, whose crucial error offset his two home runs in Monday’s loss, walked around the clubhouse with a plate of cookies, offering them to reporters.
“These guys are as loose as can be,” Manager A. J. Hinch said before the game. “I’m sure everybody wonders if I’m covering something up and I’m showing up in here and showing a good face to cover up a team that’s all anxious.”
In fact, it was the Royals who seemed unsettled early.
Frustrated against Collin McHugh, the Mets and Rockies castoff who had baffled them in Game 1, the Royals came alive after their fortuitous fourth inning, in which they sliced in half a 2-0 Astros lead that had come on a two-run homer by Luis Valbuena.
“It got the crowd into it when you score from first on a ball that goes 150 feet or so,” Hinch said, referring to Cain’s dash around the bases. “Once they got going a little bit, Cueto pitched well to the crowd.”
The Royals took the lead in the fifth with a rally that began innocently enough, when McHugh hit Salvador Perez with a 3-2 pitch. After Alex Gordon ripped a ground-rule double that cleared the head of right fielder George Springer and bounced over the wall, McHugh was replaced by Mike Fiers.
Alex Rios greeted Fiers with grounder that bounced over third base and just out of the reach of Valbuena, scoring both runners and drawing a roar from the crowd. Alcides Escobar bunted Rios to third, and Ben Zobrist brought him home with a sacrifice fly to deep right.
That proved plenty for Cueto, who had taken the mound Wednesday with plenty to prove.
Cueto was one of the prized pitchers who changed teams at the nonwaiver trading deadline, but he arrived from Cincinnati with a reputation for being dazzling in the regular season and fizzling in the postseason.
He was shaky in Game 2, although he settled down after falling into a 4-1 hole, and the Royals rallied to win, 5-4. In Game 5, a familiar unease coursed through the ballpark in the second when, after third baseman Mike Moustakas’s throw to first was wide, allowing Evan Gattis to reach base, Valbuena drove the next pitch over the right-field wall.
As it turned it, those were the only two hits Cueto allowed in his eight innings.
“I’d throw that out the window,” Kansas City’s pitching coach, Dave Eiland, said of Cueto’s previous playoff shortcomings. “I don’t put much thought into track records. What have you done for me lately, and what are going to do tonight? He showed up big time.”
Cueto’s changeup and cut fastball and his assortment of deliveries and arm angles, which included turning his back to home plate with a hesitation, baffled the Astros. Colby Rasmus, who had homered, doubled and walked against Cueto in Game 2 — and had otherwise clobbered almost everything else he saw in the playoffs — struck out all three times he faced Cueto.
When Cueto, who retired the final 19 batters he faced, walked off the mound after the sixth, seventh and eighth, he removed his cap and alternately pounded his chest, shook his fist or shouted to himself.
When closer Wade Davis came in to pitch the ninth, the fans rewarded Cueto, who was leaning on the railing of the dugout, by chanting, “Johnn-y Cue-to.” In a back-and-forth series, those were the final words.