The baseball soared through the Kansas City night, a towering drive that tucked inside the left-field foul pole and raked up against the side of the Royals Hall of Fame. Its estimated distance was 427 feet. At contact, when ball hit bat, Johnny Cueto jerked his head back and watched the baseball fly into the distance.
It was the top of the fourth inning on Wednesday night, and Cueto had left a 90-mph cutter over the inner half of the plate.
Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop didn’t miss, belting a two-run shot to deep left, and the Orioles had the second of what would eventually be three two-run homers off Cueto — the Royals’ would-be playoff ace.
The Orioles’ power display was the difference on Wednesday. The Royals absorbed a 8-5 loss at Kauffman Stadium, snapping a four-game winning streak. Kansas City also lost an eight-game winning streak against Baltimore, the team it bested in last year’s American League Championship Series.
But for the Royals (77-49), the more pressing story line was Cueto, who was knocked around for his second straight start. He lasted five innings, yielding six runs and eight hits. Baltimore’s Manny Machado took him deep to left in the third on a hanging cutter. Chris Davis bashed another two-run shot to left in the fifth on a similar pitch.
“All three balls that they hit homers on — that they did damage on — were just spinning cutters,” Royals manager Ned Yost said afterward. “(He was) maybe just flying off a little bit and not getting that bite on that cutter. But all three of them were just kind of spinning cutters.”
It was the first time Cueto had allowed three homers in a game since 2010, when he was a 24-year-old right-hander in his third full season. Perhaps more alarming: It was the first time that Cueto had surrendered a combined 10 runs or more over two starts since 2012.
Just four days after allowing seven runs (six earned) in a 7-2 loss in Boston, Cueto once again didn’t resemble the ace that made him a coveted rental before the trade deadline in late July. By the top of the sixth, Yost had called on former starter Jeremy Guthrie to eat the middle innings.
Yost chalked up Cueto’s struggles to “one of those nights.” Cueto, speaking through translator Pedro Grifol, said he was not a robot. He had a bad night, Cueto said, but he needs to be better.
“It feels a little weird, because it doesn’t happen to him often,” Grifol said, translating for Cueto. “But (he said) he’s not a robot. He has to continue to work hard and be ready for his next outing.”
The Royals, of course, did not acquire Cueto to wins games in August. They paid the price of three young left-handers because Cueto possesses the talent and track record to match up with the game’s best starters in October.
Following Wednesday night’s game, Cueto said he had felt strong. He had energy. His right arm felt good, with no aftereffects from the elbow issues that plagued him earlier this season. The Orioles battered him all the same.
The pitches “just stayed up in the zone and the hitters made the adjustment,” Cueto said through Grifol.
The Royals had struck first in the second, scoring two on a double from Salvador Perez and an infield single from Omar Infante. The inning began with a double into the right-field gap from Kendrys Morales off Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen. Perez followed by raking a 94-mph fastball off the left field wall.
Paulo Orlando and Infante followed with consecutive infield hits, and Perez raced home on Infante’s dribbler to Machado. The Royals looked poised to tack on some more runs when Alcides Escobar jolted a drive to deep center. But Orioles center fielder Adam Jones chased down the ball at the warning track, and Infante passed Orlando on the base paths near second base, resulting in an inning-ending double play.
“Paulo did a great job of reading that, knowing that, even if he doesn’t catch it, with my speed, I can still score (from second base) so I’m going to tag,” Yost said. “I think Omar thought the way I thought — that he wasn’t going to catch it and he was going to score.
“He was just watching the play and he got around Paulo.”
The Orioles made Kansas City pay for the Little League transgression. Cueto, who came to the Royals on July 26 in a four-player deal, served up a two-run homer to Machado on an 89-mph cutter that stayed up in the zone. The final homer — Davis’ 35th of the season — came on an outside cutter that Davis powered the other way.
The Royals pulled a run back in the sixth on an RBI single from Morales, but the rally ended with two runners on base. Baltimore pushed the lead back to 7-3 on a booming homer from Steve Pearce off Guthrie in the top of the eighth. The Royals momentarily stayed within striking distance when Mike Moustakas drilled a two-run shot into the Pepsi Porch in right — his fourth homer in seven games and 15th on the season. But Yost sent Guthrie back out for the ninth, and Ryan Flaherty crushed an insurance homer to deep center field.
Hours earlier, before the fireworks, the Royals’ clubhouse was a serene scene. The Royals had won nine of 11 and were in position to move to 30 games over .500 for the first time in 35 years. The machine, in other words, was in cruise control. Wednesday was also Cueto’s first home start since twirling consecutive gems against the Tigers and Angels at Kauffman Stadium. The first was a nine-inning tour de force in his home debut. The second included one run over eight innings in another victory. This was something less appealing — a performance that could induce some concern as the Royals prepare to ride Cueto’s arm into the postseason.
At the very least, the last two outings could beg the question: How strong is that right arm? Earlier this season, Cueto twice received extra rest between starts while dealing with elbow soreness. Cueto responded with a sterling outing in his last start with Cincinnati — and a 2.03 ERA in July — quelling some of the worries. Then came the last two starts.
“Again, he’s not a robot.” Grifol said, translating for Cueto. “And he just had another bad outing. And he’s going to get better.”