KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A few minutes shy of 9:50 p.m. on Monday, for the ninth time in a 4-0 Royals victory, the congregants at Kauffman Stadium rose to salute Johnny Cueto. A roar greeted his arrival on the mound to complete the ninth inning against Detroit, and a chant followed his steps onto the mound.
“Let’s go Cueto,” those who remained of the 36,672 fans at the park shouted. “Let’s go Cueto.”
A first-place club needs no saviors, but the arrival of Cueto last month, days before the trade deadline, signaled the seriousness of this team’s pursuit of the championship that eluded them in 2014. In his first performance in front of his new home fans, Cueto displayed all the attributes that earned him the title of an ace.
Kansas City played 101 games without Cueto this season, and no Royal had pitched a shutout. In his third start for the team, Cueto completed that feat. Moments after the final out fell from the sky, Salvador Perez wrapped Cueto in a bear hug. Soon after, Perez doused his battery mate with the customary bucket of Gatorade.
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He spun nine scoreless innings, racing through spotless frames against the ravaged bones of the Detroit roster. Cueto allowed only four hits, and did not permit a Tiger to stand on third base. He struck out eight, including three in the final two innings.
The performance helped the Royals collect their fourth victory in a row. They continue to mow down the American League Central, rolling toward their first division title since 1985. And every fifth day, they can turn to one of the best pitchers on the planet.
Cueto impressed but did not astound in his first two outings as a Royal. He survived a rocky outing in Toronto to escape with three runs allowed in six innings. The bullpen blew a three-lead after he departed. He spun seven innings of two-run baseball against Detroit in his second outing, only to wear the loss because the offense slumbered through the evening.
So Cueto acquitted himself, even if he arrived at Kauffman Stadium on Monday without a victory as a Royal. The package he presented impressed his new manager, Ned Yost.
“I like everything about him,” Yost said. “I like his competitiveness. The way he goes deep into games. He’s entertaining to watch. He’s got great stuff. He’s a great competitor, and he can execute.”
The man strolled into the clubhouse at 4:43 p.m. A smile beamed across his face.
“Cueto, Cueto,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
Two hours later, his appearance on the diamond generated a similar reaction, albeit one transmitted by the thousands already inside the park. The crowd greeted him with an appreciative ovation. A few fans chanted his first name.
The volume rose after Cueto’s first inning. He struck out a pair in a spotless frame. He received a standing ovation. The theme carried through the night.
By the time Cueto returned to the mound, the Royals led by three. Only five days earlier, the offense looked helpless at the hands of Tigers rookie Matt Boyd, a recent arrival from Toronto in the David Price trade. In his first start for Detroit, Boyd limited Kansas City to one run in seven innings.
On Monday the Royals doubled that output in three batters. The first two, Alcides Escobar and Ben Zobrist, cracked first-pitch singles. The next batter practiced more patience. Lorenzo Cain turned on a full-count fastball and belted a two-run double. Kendrys Morales widened the lead with an RBI single to bring Cain home.
Cueto locked into a groove, and the Tigers could not remove him from it. He yielded a one-out double to outfielder J.D. Martinez in the second, but responded with two quick outs. He scooped a two-out grounder from first baseman Jefry Marte, jogged toward the first-base line and waited to Marte to walk into the tag.
An inning later, Cueto peered into the sky to discern the flight of an infield fly off the bat of outfielder Anthony Gose. Cueto diagnosed the ball’s trajectory and turned toward the dugout. He removed his cap before the third out landed in Alcides Escobar’s glove.
As Cueto cruised, his teammates failed to continue battering Boyd. They ran into outs on the bases. They hit into double plays. But in the seventh, Hosmer rolled an RBI single up the middle to increase the advantage to four.
A faint chant could be heard as Cueto toiled in the eighth, a few fans hollering “Let’s go Cueto.” The mantra picked up steam as the inning continued. Cueto struck out catcher Alex Avila with a 93-mph fastball for the inning’s first out. He fanned infielder Andrew Romine with a dirt-bound changeup for the second.
The noise would only rise when Cueto returned for the ninth.