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Cueto's return gives Reds their ace for playoffs

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CINCINNATI (AP)

Johnny Cueto has looked good in his two starts since returning from the disabled list, giving the Cincinnati Reds their ace in time for the playoffs.

The question now is how they use him.

They also have that question about speedy Billy Hamilton, who has made a big impact by going 13 for 13 in steals since his promotion, showing an ability to decide a close game at the end.

Manager Dusty Baker said on Tuesday that the Reds haven't decided how Cueto fits into the playoff rotation or whether Hamilton will be on the roster. The Reds clinched at least a wild card berth on Monday night and are still in contention for the NL Central title, trailing St. Louis by two games with five left.

''We still haven't decided,'' Baker said. ''There's a lot of variables here.''

Heading into September, they didn't think they'd have Cueto in consideration for the playoff rotation. Their opening day pitcher has been on the disabled list three times this season with strained muscles behind his pitching shoulder.

At best, they figured they might be able to get him ready to pitch in relief. But he's done so well in two starts since returning that he's now an option to start the playoffs. He threw 99 pitches during seven innings of a 3-2, 10-inning win over the New York Mets on Monday night, looking quite sharp.

Cueto's experience in tight games and his ability to dominate teams make him the favorite to start the playoffs if he's healthy enough.

''The other guys have pitched great but Johnny was the man,'' Baker said. ''Nothing against anyone else, but just Johnny has a longer and greater track record. So it was just a matter of (building) endurance.''

Cueto feels like he is back to normal.

''I feel good,'' he said after the game on Monday, with trainer Tomas Vera translating. ''I talked to Dusty about pitching the eighth. He said, `No, no that's enough.' My velocity is there, everything is there.''

His teammates saw it, too.

''Cueto looked good and looked healthy, which always is important,'' shortstop Zack Cozart said. ''So with that, we're happy.''

Hamilton got into the game as a pinch-runner and stole his 13th base in as many tries. Since his promotion on Sept. 2, he leads the majors in steals. He has scored two game-winning runs, a game-tying run and a go-ahead run in extra innings.

He's gone 6 for 14 at the plate with a pair of doubles, two walks and one run batted in, much better than expected. Hamilton batted only .256 at Louisville this season, his first at Triple-A. He also was moved from shortstop to center field for the first time in his career and needs work there, as well.

The Reds are weighing whether it's better to keep Hamilton around for his limited but important role so far as a late-inning base stealer, or to go with another outfielder who is a better all-around player.

''Who do you delete to take his place?'' Baker said. ''Is he ready to start a game or come off the bench and get some hits you might need? There's a lot of factors here.''

Hamilton's late-inning steals have made him a fan favorite. The Reds are selling red ''Run Billy Run'' shirts at Great American Ball Park. So far, Hamilton has handled his promotion smoothly.

Baker lobbied to add the 23-year-old speedster to the roster for September, convinced it would help him learn a lot about how his talents translated to the majors. One question for the postseason is whether the rookie would be ready for such responsibility.

''I know Billy's the topic of the day - they're selling T-shirts with his name up there,'' Baker said. ''I'm glad we got him. I don't think he's in awe of this.''

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Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay

Tagged: Johnny Cueto, Reds

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