It seems like only yesterday that Johnny Cueto was a rock star.
The Kansas City Royals had traded for Cueto, supposedly the final piece to their World Series puzzle. He would be their Kershaw, their Bumgarner, their King Felix. He would be the guy who could look any team’s No. 1 straight in the eye and not blink.
You would have thought the Beatles were coming to town. Kansas City trumpeted his arrival — heeeere’s Johnny! Fans snapped up Cueto jerseys faster than they could be loaded on the shelves and bought fake dreadlocks so they could wear them under their hats at Kauffman Stadium. Media types such as myself had Cueto going undefeated the rest of the season since he was pitching in such a spacious park and backed by a defense that is allergic to errors.
Cueto was fabulous in his first four games, making everybody forget that the Royals gave up three prized pitching prospects for what amounted to a rental player, whose next destination could very well be Boston since it’s going to back up the truck with a salary the Royals can’t even hope to match. One of those prospects was Brandon Finnegan, the Royals’ No. 1 draft pick from the previous year who was a postseason sensation.
Cueto’s flashy, pin-wheeling style was an immediate hit with Royals fans. More than 33,000 turned out for a Monday night game. He was must-see TV in his road games.
But like a rock star no longer able to produce a hit record, Cueto has gone off-key. His last four starts have resembled teammate Jeremy Guthrie when he was going bad, heaving up little more than batting practice. Opponents are hitting about .375 in his last four games, three of them resulting in losses. In his recent games, the Royals have been a hole so fast the fans haven’t had time to get settled in their seats.
Should Kansas City fans be worried? Cueto is doing damage control, assuring everyone it’s just a rough patch and that soon he’ll be back to the form that has made him regarded as one of the best five pitchers in baseball over the past five years. There’s been no mention of a dead arm and his velocity is about where it usually is. Unless he’s tipping off his pitches, there’s no reason for his dramatic-and-sudden demise.
The Royals have a comfortable division lead and only an epic collapse on par with the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers will keep them out of the playoffs. Cueto has nearly a month to get straightened out and more than likely he will. His track record is too good to think he’s suddenly forgotten how to pitch.
The Royals, though, need the Johnny “be good” Cueto. Their starting rotation has been a hodgepodge all year, with Edinson Volquez the only consistent member, though Yordano Ventura has been much better lately. When the playoffs roll around, Ned Yost figures to send out Cueto as his No. 1, Volquez his No. 2 and Ventura his No. 3. After that, you’ve got the maddening Danny Duffy and his outrageous pitch counts that put his defense asleep as well as Kris Medlen, who is just now getting to the point where he can throw 75-85 pitches.
As good as the Royals are everywhere else, the postseason is all about pitching. Just ask Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants. Or the Royals for that matter since Bumgarner turned them into jelly.