Although the Cincinnati Reds are running away with the NL Central, there are some growing concerns for Dusty Baker's club. Their offense is suddenly sputtering, and ace Johnny Cueto seems like he's hit a wall.
Cueto tries to avoid losing three straight starts for the first time in three years, while the visiting Reds look to bounce back from one of their worst offensive showings Saturday night against Mark Buehrle and the Miami Marlins.
Cincinnati (87-58) mustered three hits and three walks in the series opener Friday, snapping a three-game winning streak with a 4-0 loss. The Reds only had two runners get to second base as they were shut out for the third time, fewest in the NL.
"We didn't put any pressure on those guys, which is a little disappointing," losing pitcher Bronson Arroyo said.
The Reds still own a double-digit lead over second-place St. Louis with 17 games to play, but there are some areas where they must improve.
Cincinnati has been limited to two runs or fewer in six of 10 games after failing to reach the three-run mark just twice in its previous 24. Cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick and slugger Jay Bruce have been in the middle of this funk, with Ludwick batting .192 in his last seven games while Bruce is mired in an 0-for-17 slump.
Cincinnati's rotation has been anchored by Cueto (17-8, 2.71 ERA), a leading candidate for the NL Cy Young Award, but he hasn't been pitching up to his lofty standards lately.
After allowing four runs over seven innings in losing to Philadelphia on Sept. 3, Cueto gave up four runs and nine hits in a season low-tying four innings of a 5-1 defeat to Houston on Sunday. He was 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA in his previous four starts, and his 2.48 ERA at the end of August was the best in the NL. He's since dropped to third in that department.
"Sometimes you just have a couple of bad outings. That's what it looks like to me," Baker told the Reds' official website. "He's never been this close to 20 (wins) and the Cy Young. There are probably things running through his head. We'll have to have a little sit down conference with him, and get him back to being Johnny Cueto pitching."
Questions have been raised about his workload, as his 192 2-3 innings are already a career high, but Cueto insists he's not running out of gas.
"I have three more outings," said the right-hander, who hasn't lost three straight starts since July 25-Aug. 4, 2009. "I'm just going to try to keep working hard."
Cueto hasn't faced the Marlins (64-81) since Cincinnati's opener April 5, when he gave up three hits in seven innings of a 4-0 win.
Buehrle (12-12, 3.74) lost to Cueto in that game after allowing two runs and seven hits in six innings. He is 2-1 with a 1.29 ERA in three career starts against the Reds.
The left-hander gave up three runs and five hits in seven innings in Saturday's 7-6, 10-inning loss to Washington. It was the seventh time in Buehrle's last 10 starts the Marlins lost.
Greg Dobbs hit his fifth homer Friday as Miami snapped a three-game skid. He's batting .414 with five RBIs in his last eight contests but has just one hit - a home run - in seven career at-bats versus Cueto.
Manager Ozzie Guillen tweeted a profanity in reference to a reporter following Friday's victory, another blemish in what has been an embarrassing season for the Marlins.