The Houston Astros play their first do or die game in the playoffs in the last decade. My wife asks me every time she gets home or talks to me on the phone, do the Astros have a shot? My answer is always the same, in this series, every game is winnable for the Astros because the two teams are pretty even. The Astros have the better pitching rotation, but the Royals appear to have the better bullpen overall. The Royals rely in more contact, while the Astros sit back and wait for the long ball. The secret for the Astros winning today will rest on the ability for the Astros to score early and often before getting to the Royals bullpen. The Astros will have to battle the Royals fans, but we have to ask one question.
What did we learn about Johnny Cueto after Game 2? We all know the Astros had sights on Cueto at the trade deadline, but the perceived friction between Astros GM and Reds GM Walt Jocketty could have gotten in the way. The much sought after Cueto was traded to the Royals prior to the trade deadline and like Scott Kazmir, he has had his ups and downs with his new team. What did we see on Friday against the Astros in Game 2? What I saw was a pitcher who struggled early, but settled into a groove and pitched better as the game went on. While Cueto did not help the Royals to win the game eventually, he did do a good job limiting the damage against the Astros from the fourth inning forward.
The Astros scored one run in the first off Cueto from a George Springer walk, Carlos Correa strikeout, and then Springer scored on a Colby Rasmus double. Evan Gattis got a meaningless single after the double, but Rasmus could not score from second base. While that might seem like a good inning for the Astros, but Jose Altuve and Luis Valbuena joined Correa as strikeout victims in the first inning.
The next inning did not start as well for Cueto as Chris Carter singles, Jason Castro walks, and Jake Marisnick lays down a perfect bunt hit. The bases were loaded and no out for Cueto, with the Astros arguably best hitter up in Altuve. This situation was a moment where Cueto could have fallen apart, but he made a good pitch to Altuve, who popped up the ball to shallow right unable to score the speedy Carter. The pressure was on Springer to get the big hit, and that’s what he exactly did as he hit a single past shortstop. The Astros were able to score two more runs on that hit, but Cueto got star phenom, Correa, to hit into an inning-ending double play.
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In the third inning, the Astros made one last attempt at scoring a run off of Cueto with Rasmus hitting his second homer of the series leading off the inning on a 1-2 count. This was another moment that Cueto could have falling off the rails, but instead, he retired 12 of the next fourteen hitters, with the only players to reach base was Rasmus on a walk and Valbuena on a single. Then the bullpen came in and shut the Astros down for the rest of the game.
Let’s take a look at Cueto’s splits this year between the Reds and Royals, and then look at the stats for each inning.
Stats from Baseball-Reference:
2015 Reds: 7-6/ 2.62 ERA/ 120 strikeouts in 130 2/3 innings.
2015 Royals: 4-7/ 4.76 ERA/ 56 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings.
You can see the stats across the board changed with the switch to the American League, trying to get used to facing the lineups with the designated hitter instead of a pitcher. Now let’s take a look at Cueto’s stat for each inning from Baseball-Reference.
As you can see above, Cueto is one of those pitchers who struggle early and in the middle of their starts. The Astros need to jump on his early before he settles down. However, should Cueto make an early exit, you need to tack on more runs because they will have Astros killer Chris Young ready to take over until it’s time for the Royals bullpen to come in. Collin McHugh has to pitch the way he pitches; the rest will take care of itself. The offense needs to get the big hits and build a comfortable lead. The Astros backs are against the wall, but the Royals probably have the more pressure on them because they were supposed to be here, not the Houston Astros.