KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Johnny Cueto delivered a masterpiece on his biggest stage yet, pitching eight dominant innings Wednesday night and leading the resilient Kansas City Royals to a 7-2 victory over the Houston Astros and back to the American League Championship Series.
Cueto allowed two hits, a single by Evan Gattis followed by Luis Valbuena's second-inning homer, before retiring the final 19 batters he faced. He struck out eight without a walk in the kind of clutch performance the Royals expected when they traded for him.
When Wade Davis breezed through the ninth, the Royals poured onto the field to celebrate.
The defending AL champs will host the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 1 on Friday night. The teams have met once before in the ALCS with the Royals winning in seven games in 1985 — they would go on to beat the St. Louis Cardinals for their only World Series triumph.
"Johnny Cueto was unbelievable," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "He knew the magnitude of this game. I think we all did. And he came out from the first pitch and had everything going."
Still, the Royals trailed 2-1 in the fifth when Alex Rios led yet another comeback with a go-ahead, two-run double. Eric Hosmer and Ben Zobrist also drove in runs, while Kendrys Morales capped the festive night with a three-run homer off Dallas Keuchel in the eighth to put it away.
"The good version of Johnny Cueto is really tough," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "Hats off to him. He pitched a great game. ... We didn't scratch much off him."
Collin McHugh (1-1), who won the divisional series opener for Houston, allowed three runs in four-plus innings. His bullpen fared little better just two days after it blew a four-run, eighth-inning lead to send the series back to Kauffman Stadium for Game 5.
Kansas City has now won 10 of its last 13 playoff games at home.
The Astros actually seemed poised after their meltdown Sunday, bolting to the lead in front of a charged Kansas City crowd thanks to a rare series of Royals defensive lapses.
With two outs in the second, Gattis sent a slow hopper down the line that third baseman Mike Moustakas fielded cleanly. But with plenty of time, his throw across the infield went wide, and first baseman Eric Hosmer had the ball pop from his glove trying to make a swipe tag.
On the next pitch, Valbuena sent his two-run homer streaking into the Astros bullpen.
It wasn't until the fourth that Kansas City got a run back, on back-to-back singles by Cain and Hosmer. But by the fifth, the Royals had figured out McHugh's darting curveball.
Salvador Perez was hit by a pitch, and Alex Gordon hit a ground-rule double to right. Hinch brought in Mike Fiers in relief, and Rios sent a double bouncing down the chalk of the third-base line, scoring two runs and giving the Royals the lead.
Following a sacrifice bunt, Zobrist's lazy sacrifice fly made it 4-2.
That was plenty of support for Cueto, who was acquired from the Reds for a package of left-handed prospects just before the July 31 trade deadline precisely for moments like this.
Mixing quick-pitch fastballs with hesitation changeups, Cueto made the Astros look foolish most of the night. He jawed with Houston outfielder Carlos Gomez, strutted around like a Wild West gunfighter, and had the unmistakable swagger of an October ace.
After all, Cueto was finally proving that he was one.
His star turn came after going 0-2 in his first four playoff starts, including a forgettable outing in Game 2 against Houston. He allowed four runs in six innings in that game, though Kansas City's offense and its stingy bullpen ultimately bailed him out.
There was no need for any help this time. Cueto was good enough on his own.
"He didn't make a bad pitch all night," Yost said. "He came in after the eighth inning and was lobbying to go back in the ninth. He was unbelievable."