If there were any doubts as to which Johnny Cueto would show up Wednesday night in Kansas City, he started to put them to bed with his eighth pitch. He had one out in hand, but the way Jose Altuve unraveled under the spotlight of a playoff series, that had come easily. George Springer was due up next, and Cueto fell behind him 3-1. Surely, there were plenty of nervous Royals fans watching, wondering whether the problematic Cueto, who had scuffled since Kansas City acquired him in July was back—and whether that was what the end of a season looked like.
On the next pitch, Cueto shredded Springer; he just shredded him. It was an 88-mph cutter that had plenty of the zone, and if Springer had taken it, it would have been a called strike, but Springer swung, and he wasn’t even close. On the next pitch, Springer struck out looking, and away we went.
Sure, Cueto made a mistake with his four-seamer to Luis Valbuena in the second inning, and Valbuena killed him for it, launching a two-run home run to right field to open the scoring. It was a first-pitch fastball and it wasn’t well-located, and the Astros as a team destroy those small mistakes. Cueto’s four-seamer has been his least reliable—maybe downright treacherous—offering lately, and he wisely elected not to lean on it on Wednesday. Still, he made that one big mistake, and it was almost fatal, really.
That’s the way mistakes always feel, in the moment, in October. The margin for error feels paper-thin. The thing is, the margin is only thinner in October if you’re playing a clearly superior opponent, and if that’s the case, then you’re probably going to make so many (or such crucial) errors that it won’t matter. In Cueto’s case, his one big mistake was more than washed away. First, he did his part to do so by pitching brilliantly from that moment on. Then, the Royals’ offense—even the weak links, in this instance, but the whole offense, really—went to work. Collin McHugh had only gotten two swings and misses against the Royals in Game 1. In Game 5, he did a bit better: he got three. Unfortunately, the good luck McHugh and the Astros had gotten on batted balls in Game 1 didn’t show up this time.
Don’t blame A.J. Hinch. He had a bullpen that had grown ineffective (be it for reasons of fatigue, or simple regression) even late in the regular season, and that had totally imploded in Game 4. He needed innings from McHugh, and even though that was true, he was relatively aggressive. He had Mike Fiers up and warming to open the fifth inning, and when Fiers came on, McHugh had only faced 17 batters. The problem was that the last two of them were on second and third base, and the one on third represented the tying run. Three pitches into Fiers’ first appearance since Sep. 29, the Royals had the lead.
As suboptimally as Ned Yost arranged his lineup throughout this series, the thing that shined through was that six good hitters in one lineup make a team awfully hard to stop. Because of the higher quality of pitchers one encounters in the playoffs, conventional wisdom emphasizes short-sequence offense. The Astros demonstrated the power of that throughout this series—to wit, the way Valbuena cashed in on Cueto’s very short-lived vulnerability. The Royals can hit home runs, too, but their ability to sustain rallies by sending so many strong and dynamic hitters to the plate is what ended up setting them apart in this series.
That’s not to say, of course, that it would set them apart next time. The Astros kept them off the board until the fifth inning Wednesday, but when the Royals struck, they struck with a crooked number, and then another. Avoid one of those crooked numbers, and Houston’s offense—very good in its own respect, but without the same depth or the same on-base abilities—would have had a fighter’s chance. The Astros just didn’t have the pitching staff to manage that avoidance.
The second crooked number for the Royals, by the way, came partially thanks to some very strange decisions on Hinch’s part. First of all, he put Dallas Keuchel into a game the Astros trailed by two runs with one at-bat left in front of them. That feels like false hustle. Keuchel couldn’t help generate the rally the team needed, and there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that he was more likely to prevent the Royals from scoring than, say, Luke Gregerson or Josh Fields would have been. Not in one inning, in an unusual role, under duress. That was just a gesture of empty desperation, and it proved terribly counterproductive. So did the intentional walk Keuchel issued to Lorenzo Cain. Kendrys Morales’s nail-in-coffin home run only formalized the Astros’ misery, and that formalization came at Hinch’s invitation.
The Astros will be back. Their young core is strong, and should only improve. Much of this loss, and much of the reason for their late-season struggles, traces to the sudden ineptitude of what was a good bullpen for most of the year. That’s not predictive, although arguably, neither was the solid performance by that unit in the early going. We can talk about how inconsistent and random bullpen performance is until we’re blue in the face, but the thing about October is that results matter, whether they’re sustainable and real or blind luck.
The Royals move on, but should guard against overconfidence. As impressive as their ability to rally and their resiliency are, the fact is that the Astros outplayed them for the majority of this series. There are a lot of similarities between the Astros and the Blue Jays. Toronto’s offense is even more opportunistic and explosive, though, so Kansas City is going to have to play a lot better to win their next series. As for this one, the shockwaves of relief and jubilation that coursed through Kauffman Stadium when Morales hit his home run about sum things up. The Astros lost, but they kept the Royals on edge the whole way.