The expected new staff ace, who continually stubbed his toe as he tried to fit in with his new club, had no business guaranteeing anything Wednesday, but a guarantee is exactly what he made to some of his teammates in the clubhouse before a winner-take-all game against the Houston Astros.
"He told me before the game that he would throw more than seven innings and I told him, 'I know, I trust you man,' " shortstop Alcides Escobar said. "He's one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. I know he had been struggling a little bit in the past. We said, 'We need you tonight. Forget about the past, just tonight.' He said get runs for me and he did really good."
It was better than good. Cueto gave up a two-run home run to Luis Valbuena as the Royals fell into an early hole and then started a dominating run. The right-hander, who was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in July for three young left-handers, went on to retire the last 19 batters he faced of an eventual 7-2 victory.
In the process, the Royals did give Cueto the runs he asked for. Alex Rios had a go-ahead two-run double in the fifth inning and Kendrys Morales added the exclamation point with a three-run home run in the eighth.
Cueto did give way to Wade Davis in the ninth, ending his night with an economical 91 pitches.
"I woke up today on the right foot," Cueto said through an interpreter. "As soon as I woke up, I felt something magic, that this was Game 5 and I felt I had to show up for everybody, for my team and the fans."
Mission accomplished, but who would have thought that a guarantee of dominance from Cueto would have been anything but hot air? Cueto delivered a 4.76 ERA over his 13 starts with the Royals, enduring a five-start stretch from Aug. 21-Sept. 13 when he went 0-5 with a 9.57 ERA.
Even in his most recent start in Game 2 of the ALDS there was nothing to suggest a potential turnaround was coming. He gave up four runs and seven hits over six innings as the Royals' offense ultimately rallied for a victory.
Cueto simply played mind games with himself and flipped the switch in a most opportune time. If there is one thing success requires, it's faith that it will come.
"It's a good attitude to have because if you don't believe in yourself, how can you expect anybody else to believe it?" said Royals legend George Brett, who currently serves as the team's vice president of baseball operations. "I'm sure there were times this year when he was struggling when he said, 'Man, I just don't have my good s--- today.' And all of a sudden he went out there and said 'I'm going to survive even if I don't have it.'
"Whenever I walked out on the field I said, 'I'm going to be the best player on this field.' Now was I every night? No. But I intended to be and I built myself up and thought I was. If you go in there with confidence, guess what, good things happen."
The impetus for Cueto's confidence seems to have been the club's big five-run rally in the eighth inning of Monday's Game 4. He managed to carry that team-wide momentum into Game 5, even after an off day Tuesday.
"There is no doubt that Game 4 was the inspiration for me," Cueto said. "When we gave up those runs [in the seventh inning] and we came back and saw [Mike] Moustakas and everybody screaming in the dugout like, 'We're not done yet,' all I kept thinking about is if we came back and win the game, I'll take care of business in Game 5."
Even as Cueto's struggles mounted this season, his teammates never lost faith. What choice did they have really? But that trust was rewarded, and perhaps Cueto has the confidence he so desperately needs moving forward. He's going to need it in the ALCS against the offense-minded Blue Jays.
"He's an ace," second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "He struggled a little bit at the end of the season, but he proved tonight that he is as advertised. He is that guy that they thought he was in that trade and he came through in the biggest way we needed him tonight."
Cueto was supposed to be the Royals' key trade-deadline acquisition, but that honor ended up going to Zobrist, the versatile veteran. But with one clutch outing, Cueto is all of a sudden that important pitching piece again.
"I don't think he wavered in his confidence; he knows what kind of pitcher he is," Zobrist said. "It was just a matter of execution, and for him to come into the biggest game of the season and execute the pitches he wanted to, I think that's just huge for him and the team, and you can't say enough about it."
Looking ahead, Cueto appears to be in line for Game 3 of the series, which would take place Monday at Toronto. In his first start for the Royals after the trade from the Reds, he matched up against the Blue Jays north of the border on July 31 and was solid, giving up three runs and seven hits over six innings, ending up with a no-decision.
While the stakes certainly are higher now, it could be argued Cueto was pitching with playoff intensity that day as well since he was trying to prove himself to his new club. After Wednesday's outing, he definitely has nothing to prove to them now.
"Thank God I was able to pitch the game I pitched," Cueto said. "There was no doubt there was some talk out there that what is wrong with Johnny Cueto, but today was the game that I was going to show everybody what I'm all about in big games. And that's what I did."