Cueto back on track after three straight losses

CINCINNATI — The Johnny Cueto Angst is over — or at least it should be.

When the Cincinnati right-hander was in a three-game losing streak, stuck on 17 victories, Reds fans’ concerns were palpable.

He’s fatigued. He’s pitching too many innings. He needs to trim his dreadlocks. He should abandon that Luis Tiant, back-to-the-hitter twist in his delivery.

Some extreme fatalists even suggested that maybe he should be moved back in the rotation, to No. 3 or No. 4 in the postseason rotation, instead of No. 1.

Oh, what are the Reds doing to do in the postseason when their best pitcher is now imitating a batting practice machine at slow speed?

Well, as Reds star second baseman Brandon Phillips likes to say, “It’s all good.”

Cueto has won his last two starts, including a seven-inning, two-run, five-hit performance Tuesday against the Milwaukee Brewers, alleviating most fears that Cueto was burned toast. He’s now 19-9 with a 2.83 ERA in 210 innings.

But even his last start, as good as he was on the mound, drew a fear factor for what he did on the bases. As he ran the basepaths in the second inning, he began limping.

Acting manager Chris Speier’s heart jumped to his mouth and thumped like a bass drum.

And Cueto was scared, too.

“It scared the daylights out of us when he came up limping there,” said Speier. “But he was fine and he didn’t even want to come out after the seventh inning.”

Cueto said he felt something tight behind his hamstring, “and I also got scared.”

“But as the game went on, everything went away and I told them I was OK, and they trusted what I said and left me in the game,” he added.

At one point this season Cueto seemed a shoo-in for the National League Cy Young Award. While that has diminished under the cloud of the three-game losing streak before his recent resurgence, he has one start remaining to become Cincinnati’s first 20-game winner since Danny Jackson won 23 in 1988.

“That’s the goal, that’s the goal I want,” said Cueto. “God willing, I’ll get that. Thank God those bad games are gone, behind me.”

Cueto said he watched video of his struggles and that, “I feel I’m back on track. I checked the videos and I noticed some problems I was having, and I’ve been able to correct them, and I’m back to normal.”

On the night of his 19th win, Cueto’s usual catcher, Ryan Hanigan, was out of the lineup with some minor aches and pains, replaced by Dioner Navarro. Not only did Navarro lead the way for Cueto behind the plate, his two-run, bases-loaded single in the second inning gave Cueto a 2-0 lead in a game the Reds won, 4-2.

Said Cueto, “I feel as good with Navarro as I do with Hanigan. Both work well with me. He made me throw a lot of fastballs. We worked together in spring training, so it was easy for me to work with him.”

Said Speier, “He really went out there and after it tonight. He really didn’t want to come out after the seventh inning, but you weigh out the risk and the reward, and the risk was too big. But he did a fantastic job, really pounded it with his fastballs.”

And there was another positive indicator for the postseason involving pitching. Closer Aroldis Chapman, after one non-save practice run, entered the ninth inning with a two-run lead Tuesday and pitched a 1-2-3 inning for his 36th save, his first since Sept. 4.

Chapman, citing fatigue in his shoulder that reduced the speed of his fastball from 100 to 94 and 95, touched 101 on the speed gun.

“I’m not worried about the 100, just the downward angle on his pitches that he can create,” said Speier. “That’s what makes him so good, and that’s what he had.”