Sunday was the kind of pitching matchup normally reserved for opening games of playoff series. The marquee reads “Johnny Cueto vs. Stephen Strasburg” and people take notice, tickets are bought and butts are filling the seats.
The actual pitching didn’t live up to the hype. The Reds and Nationals offenses, proving the old adages about how everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time and they all get paid to be true, got to the aces early. Neither Cueto nor Strasburg had their best stuff but Cueto battled through a little better than Strasburg and the Reds took the rubber match of the weekend series, 6-3, at Great American Ball Park.
That’s what a No. 1 pitcher does.
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Before Sunday’s game, Reds manager Dusty Baker was talking about how a couple of years ago Cueto wouldn’t have survived a game like the one this turned out to be. He’d let something small bother him and the whole outing would be shot.
Sunday, Cueto put behind him a rough second inning and gave his team a chance to win, doing so against a guy who is one of the star attractions in all of Major League Baseball. That’s what a No. 1 pitcher does.
“Yeah, there’s pride in this,” Cueto said. “He’s a good pitcher, just like I am. It’s a competitive thing. I wasn’t feeling good today. I don’t want to make excuses. I was watching (my pitch-count). I wanted to go at least five or six innings. I was able to work through that. I feel good about the team (winning).”
After allowing one run over seven innings in a no-decision against the Angels on Opening Day, Cueto got his first win of the season Sunday with six innings of three-run pitching in which he gave up seven hits and walked three on 108 pitches. It appeared he was heading for another no-decision after striking out Strasburg with a runner on second base to end the sixth inning.
When Cueto came to the dugout, he asked his teammates for three runs. They delivered. After plating three runs in the first inning on three hits, including a two-run double by Jay Bruce, they got those three runs in the sixth off of Strasburg thanks to the speed of rookie Derrick Robinson and RBI singles by Brandon Phillips and Bruce.
“(Cueto) was saying it in Spanish but I understood what he was saying,” said third baseman Todd Frazier. “(Strasburg) is good, don’t get me wrong, but we’re good, too. We like to put pride in ourselves and understand that’s just another pitcher out there. That’s what we keep on doing. We can hit no matter who is out there, whether it’s Joe Schmo or Strasburg, we’re hitters and it’s not going to deter us from doing what we’re supposed to do.”
Cueto pitched around a pair of singles in the first inning but the Nationals erased the Reds’ 3-0 lead on Kurt Suzuki’s three-run homer in the second inning. Cueto threw 30 pitches in the inning before finally getting Bryce Harper on a ground out to Phillips at second base and stranding a pair of runners.
Over the next four innings, Cueto allowed just three base runners while striking out six before turning things over to the bullpen.
“Yeah, Johnny C., he’s not easily rattled. He used to be, but not anymore,” said Baker before the game. “You hope a guy changes. I don’t remember when. It’s kind of a gradual thing. The more you get out of trouble, you find out how to get out of trouble. That’s the secret, how to get out of trouble. Or, how to get out of trouble with damage control, one (run) vs. blowing up and you give up four. That’s what he’s done.”
That’s what a No. 1 does.
The nine hits the Reds collected off of Strasburg equaled the most he’s ever allowed. The 13 total base runners the Reds had against him were a career high. He was at 92 pitches through five innings when manager Davey Johnson sent him to the plate to hit for himself with the potential go-ahead run at second base. Strasburg had gone seven shutout innings and allowed three hits in a 2-0 victory against Miami on Opening Day.
“He’s my horse,” Johnson said. “There were a couple of good pitchers out there. I don’t think Cueto had his best stuff, either. He threw a lot of pitches in a short amount of time. Same with Stras. But it’s a good ballpark to hit in. You’ve got to make good pitches. It’s early in the year and it’s tough here when you’re not real sharp.”
This was the first time the Reds had faced Strasburg since his rookie season of 2010. He’s grown as a pitcher in that time, overcoming torn elbow ligaments that cut that season short and being restricted by an innings count last season even though the Nationals were in the heat of the pennant chase.
Strasburg and Cueto’s development was the reason for the hype surrounding a game played in the first week of the season. On this day, the Reds’ No. 1 got the better of Washington’s No. 1, even if the game didn’t play out as envisioned.
“You want to be in that situation,” Strasburg said. “It was a big game today and I wanted to go out there and give it everything I had but it just didn’t work out for me. I thought we did a good job of getting back in the ball game with Suzuki hitting the homer. I was just trying to keep us within scoring distance as long as I could. It just didn’t seem to work out in the sixth inning.”