The right-hander stepped up big-time on the big stage, holding the Houston Astros to two hits over eight innings as the Kansas City Royals won 7-2 Wednesday night in fifth and decisive game of the American League Division Series.
"He was unbelievably good," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "He knew the magnitude of this game. He came out from the first pitch, just had everything going. He came in after the eighth inning and was lobbying to go back out in the ninth."
Cueto walked none and struck out eight, his high in 15 starts with the Royals, including two starts in the ALDS.
"I don't think they had a chance," said Royals right fielder Alex Rios, whose two-run, fifth-inning double put Kansas City on top for good.
While Cueto was brought in to be the staff ace, he was disappointing until Wednesday. In one five-game stretch, all losses, Cueto had an earned-run average higher than 9.00, and overall he was 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA in 13 regular-season starts for Kansas City.
"There's no doubt that he knew there some talk out there (about) what was wrong with Johnny Cueto," said Cueto, with catching coach Pedro Grifol acting his interpreter. "But that today was the game that (I) was going to show everybody what (I am) all about in big games. And that's what (I) did."
When the Royals needed him the most -- win or go home until spring training -- Cueto came through for his first postseason victory. He was 0-2 with a 5.52 ERA in his four previous playoff starts.
"He showed why he's going to make himself a lot of money," said losing pitcher Colin McHugh. "He's one of the top free agents on the market."
Rios, who had only 32 RBIs in 105 regular-season games, provided the key hit, a two-run double to left in Kansas City's three-run fifth.
Designated hitter Kendrys Morales put an exclamation point on the game with a three-run homer off Astros 20-game winner Dallas Keuchel with two outs in the eighth.
"I went all or nothing," Morales said through an interpreter. "I swung at a good pitch and hit it hard. He threw me two good breaking pitches that I should have hit out but I missed them. The third one I didn't miss."
Keuchel, who was brought in to keep Houston's deficit at a manageable 4-2, yielded a leadoff double to shortstop Alcides Escobar and intentionally walked center fielder Lorenzo Cain before Morales drilled a 2-2 slider over the left field fence. Morales, who led the Royals with 106 RBIs in the regular season, hit three home runs in the ALDS.
"I felt like I let the team down a little bit, especially if I (had) got out of the inning down two, I felt like we had a shot to come back," Keuchel said. "The three-run homer really put a dagger in us, I felt like. It's not like I'm going to take that pitch back. It was down and he put a good swing on it. He was better than me that at-bat. I just wasn't good enough tonight."
Kansas City closer Wade Davis worked a flawless ninth to set up a thunderous roar before 40,566 fans.
After Cueto retired the first five batters in the second, he should have been out of the inning on a play the Royals routinely make. Astros designated hitter Evan Gattis hit a grounder down the third base line that Mike Moustakas backhanded, but his throw to first was off line. Gattis jarred the ball loose from first baseman Eric Hosmer as he attempted to make a tag and it was ruled an infield single.
That proved costly. On the next pitch, Valbuena drove a 94 mph pitch from Cueto into the Astros' bullpen, making it 2-0. Valbeuna was 2-for-14 (both singles) in the postseason before the homer.
"All the other players, all they kept telling me was just keep the game right there and we'll get you some runs," Cueto said. "Thank God, I was able to keep Houston to two runs and they did what they had to do."
The Royals broke through with a hustle run in the fourth. With one out, Cain sliced a single to right. With the count full, Cain was running on a pitch from right-hander Colin McHugh (1-1) to Hosmer, who blooped it into shallow center. When Carlos Gomez fell down fielding the ball, Cain never stopped running and scored standing up, cutting the lead to 2-1.
The Royals forged ahead with a three-run fifth and sent McHugh to the showers. Perez was hit by a pitch leading off the inning and stopped at third on Gordon's ground-rule double to right.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch went to his bullpen, bringing in Mike Fiers, who was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers along with Gomez in a July 30 trade. Rios, who batted .140 with runners in scoring position and fewer than two outs during the regular season, hit a grounder down the third base line for a double, putting the Royals ahead by a run.
Escobar bunted Rios to third, and second baseman Ben Zobrist got him home with a flyout to right.
McHugh, who beat the Royals in the first game of the ALDS, was charged with three runs and five hits in four-plus innings.
"It hurts," Astros right fielder George Springer said. "I think everybody wanted to keep playing, and obviously that didn't happen. It's tough. Nobody wants to talk about a loss, especially now. It stinks it had to end tonight.
"Obviously, this stings, and we're going to go home with this in our mouth and kind of sit back and kind of reflect on it. We're already turning the page and looking forward to 2016 in a few months."
NOTES: Astros LF Colby Rasmus, who hit four home runs in the first five postseason games, was moved to cleanup. He went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. DH Evan Gattis, who had a .150 average with no extra-base hits and one RBI in postseason play entering Wednesday, was dropped to sixth. He went 1-for-3. ... Royals manager Ned Yost used the same lineup for all five ALDS games. ... Commissioner Rob Manfred was on hand for the game. ... The Royals are the only team in major league history to win an elimination game when down by at least four runs entering the eighth inning, doing it twice, in the 2014 AL wild-card game and in Game 4 on Monday. ... The Royals honored Kansas City, Mo., firefighters Larry Leggio and John Mesh, who died Monday in a fire. Eric Hosmer, whose father Mike was a firefighter for 29 years in Miami, met with the families of the fallen firefighters before the game.