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That was the Johnny Cueto we knew and loved

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Posted at 1:44 PM, Oct 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-15 13:44:28-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The "other" Johnny Cueto - the one Reds fans knew and loved - finally showed up when the Kansas City Royals needed him most.

The decisive game of a playoff series, their season on the line.

The former Reds ace responded with a masterpiece on his biggest stage yet, eight dominant innings Wednesday night that allowed the resilient Royals to rally once more for a 7-2 victory over the Houston Astros that sent them back to the American League Championship Series.

"I woke up today on the right foot," Cueto said in the Royals' celebration after the game. "As soon as I woke up, I felt something magic, that this was Game 5 and I had to show up for everybody, for this team and the fans."

Cueto allowed two hits, a single by Evan Gattis followed by Luis Valbuena's second-inning homer, before retiring his final 19 batters. He struck out eight without a walk in the kind of clutch performance the Royals expected when they got him from the Reds before the July 31 trading deadline.

When Wade Davis breezed through the ninth, the Royals poured onto the field to celebrate.

"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."

"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."

Cueto had been having a rocky time in Kansas City. He was just 4-7 after leaving Cincinnati and had 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.

Cueto's star turn came after going 0-2 in his first four postseason starts - three with Cincinnati. Reds fans remember his 6-2 loss to the Pirates in the 2013 Wild-Card Game, when the loud Pittsburgh fans unnerved him by chanting "Cueto, Cueto, Cueto"  non-stop when he was on the mound. He gave up four earned runs in 3 1/3 innings on eight hits - including two homers.

And who could forget Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS against the Giants, when Cueto had to leave in the first inning with back spasms? The Reds won the first two games in San Francisco, but Cueto missed the rest of the series and the Giants swept three games at Great American Ball Park.

Cueto made his first postseason start In Game 3 of the  2010 NLDS against the Phillies. He held the Phillies to two runs in five innings, but the Reds lost 2-0 and were eliminated in a three-game sweep.

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.

"After the homer he settled in. He was able to use deception, quick-pitch, slow us down and disrupt our timing," Astros slugger George Springer said. "He's got electric stuff."

"Tonight was Cueto's night," Hinch said. "We didn't get a baserunner after the second, is that right? By my book. I thought the crowd got behind him, and he pitches with emotion. He rose to the occasion. This was his night."

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.