Royals' new rallying cry: Heeere's Johnny!

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Johnny Cueto will now get a chance to pump life back into team and town, which is exactly why he is pitching for the Kansas City Royals in the first place.

Acquired in late July to take the hill in big, late-season games, nothing will fit that bill more than Friday afternoon's Game 2 of the American League Division Series after the Royals fell 5-2 to the Houston Astros in the series opener Thursday.

Forget the two-month window from the end of July until now. Cueto certainly would rather put most of it out of his mind. He was 4-7 with the Royals and had a 4.76 ERA in 13 starts, posting a miserable 9.57 ERA in a five-start stretch from Aug. 21 to Sept. 13.

"There was a little concern that we couldn't figure [him] out," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "It didn't worry us because we all knew we'd get it figured out by the time the playoffs started, and we did."

Indeed, Cueto was better down the stretch, delivering a 3.24 ERA in his last four regular-season starts and giving up just one run on six hits in his final start, against the Minnesota Twins.

"I had never gone through something like that before," Cueto said through an interpreter Thursday. "That season is over. This is a new season. And you'll get to see what Johnny Cueto is all about."

Those struggles were the last thing the Royals expected to see. He was not the staff ace Kansas City was banking on, and he did not start the postseason opener, although to do so he would have been on short rest after throwing 100 pitches Sunday.

Yordano Ventura had been the best pitcher down the stretch for the Royals anyway, although he looked out of sorts Thursday while giving up three runs over two innings to the Astros and was removed from the game after a 47-minute rain delay.

"I felt great, you just have to tip your cap to them," Ventura said through an interpreter. "They had some good at-bats and they got me for three [runs]. They were tough on me taking pitches and making sure they looked for one pitch, and it seemed like when they got that pitch they didn't miss it."

Now Cueto must do what Ventura could not: Get the Royals rolling early in a game that has serious implications. If the Royals can't win Friday, they face Cy Young Award candidate Dallas Keuchel in Game 3 at Houston, a scenario that only ramps up the sense of urgency.

"You look at Keuchel's numbers at home, they're really impressive," Yost said. "[Friday] will be a big game for us, yeah."

Ventura also had better numbers at home, if not in the Keuchel stratosphere. He entered Thursday's outing with a 3.84 ERA in 14 starts at Kauffman Stadium, a number achieved even with his first-half issues.

But a walk and two singles had Ventura on his heels as the Astros loaded the bases three batters into the game. Credit Ventura for limiting the damage as the Astros scored twice on a pair of ground balls. Houston took a 3-0 lead in the second inning on an RBI single from Jose Altuve.

Kendrys Morales got one of the runs back in the bottom of the second with the first of his two home runs. But when rain intensified before the start of the third inning, the delay arrived.

While Astros starter Collin McHugh would return to the game, Ventura's day was done.

"[We] said, OK, 50 minutes max for him; 45 for a young guy is more like our number," Yost said. "But it was pushing 60 minutes there, so we made the decision to go with Chris Young and he came in and did a nice job for us."

Young struck out seven batters while giving up a lone run over four innings. Making the right-hander's outing even more impressive was that it came less than two weeks after the death of his father and three days after the funeral.

"I have a job to do and life goes on," Young said. "It's certainly been a tough week and a half, but these guys have been there to pick me up and I'm trying to do the same for them."

It lent valuable perspective to the Royals' situation. But the pick-me-up that Young might appreciate Friday is a well-played game from his teammates that gets the Royals back in the series.

"It's a good feeling knowing you have a guy like Johnny Cueto pitching," first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "It's a big game for us. We need to win this one and that's the guy we want on the mound."