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In Kansas City, Johnny Cueto Is An Enigma, In Cincinnati He's A Legend

Keith Allison
Flickr -- CC
Johnny Cueto at the Orioles earlier this season.

Game 2 of the World Series is Wednesday night with the Kansas City Royals up one after winning, 5-4, Tuesday in 14 innings. The Royals say they have the pieces to go all the way against the New York Mets, and the biggest splash was the acquisition of pitcher Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds last July.

Though it was difficult for some Reds fans to say goodbye, Cueto’s up-and-down performances since then have left the Royals feeling blue.

Last August when the Royals traveled to Cincinnati, Braxton Smith, a financial advisor from Pikeville, Kentucky, didn’t want to miss Johnny Cueto’s first trip back to the city after the trade — even if Cueto didn't start either of the two games between the Royals and Reds.

“I’m going to be with Johnny for the rest of his career. Hands down,” said Smith. “ I’m always going to be a Reds fan, but I am a 100 percent Johnny Cueto fan.”

Credit Greg Echlin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Cincinnati Reds and Johnny Cueto fan, Braxton Smith.

Smith wore his Reds’ Cueto jersey when the Royals played at Great American Ballpark.

“The whole package as a baseball player, as a whole, got me with Johnny Cueto,” added Smith. “I’m just a Johnny Cueto fan.”

Also wearing his Reds’ Cueto jersey was Josh Shortt, a Reds season-ticket holder from Erlanger, Kentucky. Shortt says he was stung by the Cueto trade, but figured it was coming because he understands the business side.

Cueto is in the last year of his contract, so his next contract will amount to a price that neither the Reds nor the Royals may be willing to pay. Nevertheless, Shortt will pull for the Royals in the World Series, adding he appreciates what Cueto did for the Reds.

“It was just great. He was the first real home-grown pitcher, let alone an ace that had come up through the system that actually did anything. He didn’t just flame out,” said Shortt. He actually lived up to his potential.”

Right away in Kansas City, Cueto made a literal splash. He threw a complete game shutout, the only Royals pitcher to accomplish that this year and he got the customary Gatorade dumping by teammate Salvador Perez.

“He wasn’t expecting it, but he earned it,” said Cueto translator Pedro Grifol as they both laughed. But since then it’s been shaky with only four wins in 13 starts. He also went through the first five-game losing streak of his career.

Royals fans were edgy heading into Game Five of the division series with the season on the line against Houston. But Cueto pitched like a Cy Young Award winner that night. He went eight innings and retired the last 19 batters he faced.

Then in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series in Toronto, Cueto fell into the funk Royals fans had come to fear. Cueto didn’t make it through the third inning after being tagged for eight runs in the 11-8 loss.

Afterward, The Kansas City Star Royals beat writer Andy McCullough asked Royals manager Ned Yost: “At this point with Johnny after three months, do you find yourself just sort of unsure of which guy’s going to come to the mound?”

Though Yost was steadfast in his public support of Cueto, he chose to overlook Cueto to start Game 1 of the World Series. Instead, Yost gave the nod to Edinson Volquez, who also once played for the Reds.

Yost says it sets up Cueto to pitch two games in the World Series, Game 2 and Game 6 if necessary in the best-of-seven.

“We think that that gives us a bit of an advantage of having Johnny pitching at home in front of our home crowd,” said Yost. “They really, really give him a lot of energy.”

USA Today national baseball writer Bob Nightengale agrees with the move. But Nightengale said his starts are not only important now for the Royals, but also for Cueto’s future.

“It’s up to Cueto to step up to see if he could get a big contract,” said Nightengale. “If not, he could be in for a rude awakening if he has some bad starts here in the World Series.”

After the World Series, Cueto can sign with any team as a free agent. Cueto fan Braxton Smith is not only pulling for Cueto, but has only one wish when it’s all over: “We’ll see what happens. Just don’t be a Yankee, Johnny.”

Whether or not Cueto will eventually be a Yankee, the Royals are counting on him now to beat a team from New York.

Sports have an economic and social impact on our community and, as a sports reporter, I go beyond the scores and statistics. I also bring the human element to the sports figures who have a hand in shaping the future of not only their respective teams but our town. Reach me at gregechlin@aol.com.
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