Cueto earns Reds Opening Day nod

Feb 15, 2014; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto during team workouts on the practice fields of Goodyear Ballpark.  

Mark J. Rebilas/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Johnny Cueto will start for the Reds on Opening Day next Monday against St. Louis, manager Bryan Price announced Thursday morning. It will be Cueto’s third consecutive Opening Day start.

Cueto was forced to skip a start with a irritation in his right scapula but showed no signs of ill effect following a minor league start on Tuesday. Cueto said on Tuesday that he was ready to go for the season and, while Price was more cautious in his approach, that’s exactly how it has played out.

"I had spoken with Johnny ahead of time and he had a pretty good understanding that if he made it through that start that he’d be starting Opening Day," said Price.

The Reds and Cardinals play at 4:10 p.m. Monday at Great American Ball Park. Adam Wainwright is expected to start for St. Louis in the first of a three-game series.

Cueto, speaking to the media with assistant minor league strength and conditioning coordinator Rigo Febles serving as an interpreter, said he was thankful the Reds are giving him the chance to start the game. While it’s still just one of 162 games on the schedule and he has to treat it as such, Cueto admitted there is a little extra excitement on the first day of the season.

"It’s a great feeling. So much energy. Everyone wants that opportunity to open the season," said Cueto. "With the fans, it’s exciting."

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Tony Cingrani will pitch the second game on Wednesday following an off day, and Homer Bailey will pitch the series finale next Thursday. Mike Leake will pitch the opener of the first road series of the season at New York against the Mets on April 4. Cueto would make his second start of the season on April 5 and then fifth starter Alfredo Simon is scheduled to pitch on April 6.

The Reds have had to deal with numerous injuries this spring, especially with their pitching staff. They have seven players (at this point) expected to start the season on the disabled list, five of them pitchers: relievers Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall and Brett Marshall and starter Mat Latos. Brett Marshall was a candidate for the fifth starter role but now he is the latest to be added to the list. He strained a tendon in his right middle finger while pitching on Wednesday against the Chicago White Sox.

"It’s a strange injury," said Price, who has grown weary of all of the various injuries. "I just don’t want anyone crossing the street right now."

Even those who will start the season on the 25-man roster have had their health issues this camp.

Cueto caused a stir when he had to miss a Cactus League start because of the tightness he was feeling in his scapula. Price, pitching coach Jeff Pico and Cueto all said he could have pitched that day and the move was strictly precautionary but given his history they were going to keep a close eye on him. Cueto is coming off a season in which he made just 11 starts. He made three trips to the disabled list due to a series of lat muscle issues.

Bailey had a groin strain that forced him to miss one start this spring and push back another but he came through a minor-league start on Monday feeling good. He will start on Saturday in an exhibition at Triple-A affiliate Louisville. Leake had an abdominal strain that forced him to miss his first start of the spring but has been fine since. Latos, who had surgery last October to remove bone spurs in his right elbow, had knee surgery on February 14. He’s made a couple of starts on the minor-league level and is progressing toward a mid-April return to the rotation.

If Latos progresses as planned, the Reds will only need to use Simon as the fifth starter once and then he can move back to his role as long reliever out of the bullpen, a role he has performed well the last two seasons.

Cingrani is the only pitcher who hasn’t had any injury setbacks this spring. The lefthander has struggled with control his last couple of outings but has been working on secondary pitches to go with his fastball. Last year at this time, Cingrani was getting ready to make the jump to Triple-A. Now he’s going to start the season pitching in the No. 2 rotation spot.

"We wanted Tony in somewhere there in the middle just to give us that left-handed element breaking up our right-handers, and he’ll do a fine job. We’re all real excited about Tony here and his future with us," said Price. "His breaking ball and changeup have gotten a lot better. They’re not just usable pitches but they’re pitches that he can get hitters out with."

Cueto is 65-48 in his career since first coming up to the Reds in 2008. He has a career ERA of 3.53 but in the last three seasons he’s been 2.31 (2011), 2.78 (2012) and 2.82 (2013).

Cueto is 1-0 in his two previous Opening Day starts. He beat Miami 4-0 in 2012 and then received a no-decision in a 3-1 loss in extra innings to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last year. He went seven innings in both games and gave up three hits in each outing. He has 13 strikeouts and four walks in the two games combined.