KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The day before his first postseason start with the Royals, Johnny Cueto — the former Cincinnati Reds right-hander acquired just before the trade deadline — dismissed his lackluster final two months of the season cavalierly, as if some less capable look-alike had parachuted in to pitch in his place.
“That season is over,” Cueto said, as translated by Pedro Grifol, the Royals’ hitting coach. “This is a new season. And you’ll get to see what Johnny Cueto is all about.”
At first, Johnny Cueto pitched no differently from the other one, giving up four runs through the first three innings of Game 2 of an American League division series against the Houston Astros. After that, Cueto — the real one, presumably — allowed nothing more through six innings.
The Royals, meanwhile, rallied to tie the game and then won it, 5-4, on Ben Zobrist’s run-scoring single in the seventh. That tied the best-of-five series at one game apiece. Kansas City avoided falling behind by two games to none before heading to Houston, where the 20-game winner Dallas Keuchel, unbeatable at home this season (15-0, 1.46 E.R.A.), is set to start Game 3 on Sunday at Minute Maid Park.
Cueto was charged with four runs and seven hits in a no-decision. He was not fabulous, but he was not awful, pitching just well enough to keep his team in the game.
“When you make a big trade at the deadline, this is exactly what it’s for, for big games and playoff games,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said before the game. “Today is one of those games where a guy like Johnny Cueto earns his name.”
Cueto arrived in Kansas City in a deal for three players, the delayed replacement for the departed free agent James Shields. Cueto, who turns his back to the hitter in mid-windup the way Luis Tiant did, shut out Detroit in his third start after the trade, then beat the Angels with a strong eight innings. But he lost five consecutive starts between Aug. 21 and Sept. 13, allowing an alarming 28 earned runs in 261/3 innings, before winning two of his last three.
Kansas City Manager Ned Yost slotted Cueto for Game 2 on his normal rest. Cueto last pitched on Sunday in Minnesota, allowing one run in five innings to a lineup sprinkled with backups and young players. Yost preferred an experienced arm if Houston won the series opener.
“That’s exactly why we got Johnny Cueto,” Yost said before the game. “If you lose Game 1, then you’ve got Johnny to help you bounce back. And best-case scenario, you win Game 1, and then you’ve got to take it to a two-game lead. So that’s why we got Johnny, for games like that.”
Cueto struggled early. Colby Rasmus doubled in a run in the first, becoming the first major leaguer with an extra-base hit in each of his first six postseason games. George Springer singled home two more in the second, and Rasmus homered in the third for a 4-1 lead, his sixth homer in six games going back to the regular season.
But after the homer Cueto retired 12 of his final 14 batters, allowing only a walk to Rasmus in the fifth and Luis Valbuena’s single in the sixth. That permitted the Royals to come back.
The Royals scored one run on a double play in the third. In the sixth, Houston starter Scott Kazmir departed for Oliver Perez, an exchange of former Met pitchers, after Lorenzo Cain doubled with one out. Perez, who induced an inning-ending popout in a key spot in Game 1, fared worse this time.
Hosmer singled in a run. With the Astros’ infielders overshifted to the left side, the switch hitter Kendrys Morales, batting right-handed, dribbled a ground-ball single through the vacated spot where second baseman Jose Altuve normally plays.
Instead of an inning-ending double play, the Royals had runners on first and third, and Perez brought both hands to his head in disbelief. Then he walked Mike Moustakas to load the bases.
Josh Fields relieved Perez and walked Salvador Perez on four pitches to force in the tying run, before ending the rally by striking out Alex Gordon and Alex Rios.
Three Royals relievers combined on the final three scoreless innings. Wade Davis, who succeeded the injured Greg Holland as Kansas City’s closer, finished it off.
Davis walked pinch-hitter Preston Tucker in the ninth to put the tying run on, then picked off pinch-runner Carlos Gomez, who had been originally ruled safe until the call was overturned on review. While the umpires checked with the league office in New York, Davis and the Royals infielders stood around the mound watching a replay on the center-field video board that showed Hosmer tagging Gomez before he dived back. Shortstop Alcides Escobar pumped a fist as the Kauffman Stadium crowd roared.