CINCINNATI — Johnny Cueto was upset with himself. He had flubbed his initial attempt at picking up a simple sacrifice bunt. It was a mistake that cost him throwing out Toronto’s Joes Bautista at first base and allowed the Blue Jays to load the bases with no outs in the third inning of Sunday’s game. It was the second error of the inning for the Reds, who were leading 1-0. They had made just three errors in their last 20 games but now the man who has been dubbed Johnny Beisbol and his teammates were in a pressing predicament.
The Blue Jays got two runs out of the inning but very little else the rest of the day against Cueto as the Reds won their second straight against the AL East division leaders and again got back to .500 with a 4-3 win at Great American Ball Park.
The term ‘grinder’ isn’t usually associated in baseball with pitchers, especially not pitchers who are the ace of a staff and a bona fide Cy Young contender. Cueto can certainly dominate a game but his best attribute is ability to be a grinder in all the best meanings of the word.
Cueto allowed just one run on three hits in his final five innings of work before turning things over to Aroldis Chapman, who struck out the side in the ninth inning to preserve the win. The final of the 120 pitches Cueto threw on the 90-degree day froze Juan Francisco for a strike out looking.
"Today was a very hot day and he still gave you eight strong innings," said catcher Brayan Pena, who has become Cueto’s personal catcher. "He’s one of those guys who when he goes out there, his mentality is ‘Pena, I need to keep my team in the ball game, I need to have a quality start to keep us in the ball game because I know good things will happen.’ When you’ve got that mentality on the mound, you’re going to be tough to beat."
A day after Mike Leake gave the Reds eight innings and allowed one run, Cueto pitched seven or more innings for the 11th time in 16 starts. Two of the three runs he allowed were unearned, making Sunday the 14th time this season he’s allowed two earned runs or less.
"That’s why I think he’s the best pitcher in the game," said shortstop Zack Cozart. "I’ve said it from day one, I don’t think he gets enough credit, publicity, whatever it is. I don’t think we talk about him enough. When it’s an important part of the game, he comes out and performs at his best. That’s what you want in your number one and he’s proven when he’s healthy he’s one of the best if not the best in the game."
The Reds got out of the jam in the fourth inning when Cueto got a groundball off the bat of Steve Tolleson to Cozart, who flipped the ball to Brandon Phillips who made the turn and threw to Joey Votto at first base for a double play. That kept the score 2-1. The Reds tied it up in the fourth inning and then took the lead for good in the fifth when Todd Frazier hit his 17th home run of the season with Cueto on base.
Cueto may have been upset with himself over his error on Bautista’s bunt, but he didn’t let it affect him.
"As soon as that happened I thought ‘I have to look for a ground ball’. I wanted a groundball, a double-play ball," said Cueto through interpreter Tomas Vera. "I said I had to get tougher at that point."
Cueto struck out six of the final 19 batters he faced and got six more outs on groundballs. The lone run Toronto got off of him after the third inning came on a solo home run by Edwin Encarnacion leading off the eighth inning. Cueto set the Blue Jays down in order after the home run.
Cueto spoils people. He hadn’t been past the sixth inning in any of his last three starts and questions of if he’s okay or not, if maybe he had thrown too many innings early in the season and now it was coming back at him, began popping up. He still had only given up six runs in those three games but thatâs how good Cueto was through his first nine starts.
"The difference today was that physically I feel great. I feel a lot better today and all of my pitches were down," said Cueto. "With that team (Toronto), you have to keep everything down. That was my plan today and thatâs what I did."
Cueto lowered his NL-best ERA to 1.86. He’s now thrown 116 innings but has shown little signs of wearing down.