Cueto rises to challenge, shuts down Pirates

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) is congratulated by catcher Brayan Pena (29) after the Reds defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 at Great American Ball Park. 

David Kohl/USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — Johnny Cueto says he wasn’t thinking about last October, that he hasn’t thought about that National League wild card game disaster in Pittsburgh. Maybe he has truly put the four runs on eight hits in just 3 1/3 innings that he gave up to the Pirates in a 6-2 loss out of his mind.

Or maybe he’s just not going to let anyone really know how good it must have felt to dominant the Pirates Wednesday afternoon.

Cueto threw his first complete game in nearly two years and the third shutout of his career, stymieing the Pirates on three hits as the Reds beat Pittsburgh 4-0 at Great American Ball Park. It took Cueto and the Reds just two hours, 22 minutes to win their second game in a row for the first time this season and their first series of the season after dropping their first four.

He didn’t walk a batter. He struck out a career-high 12 batters and out-dueled fellow Dominican Republic native Francisco Liriano, the same pitcher who beat the Reds last postseason, for his first win of the season. Cueto had only allowed 13 hits and five runs over 21 innings in his previous three starts but the Reds had scored just one run in those games while he was on the mound.

Cueto upped his game Wednesday.

He started by allowing only a no-man’s land dribbler of an infield hit to catcher Tony Sanchez among the first 11 batters. He finished the game by retiring the final 13 batters the Pirates sent up to the plate, including Starling Marte and Travis Snider looking at called strike threes to start the ninth inning.

"I felt really strong the whole time," said Cueto through interpreter and assistant trainer Tomas Vera. "I feel really strong and confident. At the end of the game I was really confident. Every single pitch was good. I felt really strong."

Bryan Price had no thoughts of removing Cueto heading into the final inning. The Reds had tacked on a pair of runs in the seventh inning on a Joey Votto home run and another in the eighth inning on an RBI double by catcher Brayan Pena but even without those insurance runs, this was Cueto’s game.

More important than him exacting some sort of redemption against the Pirates was the fact that the Reds needed this win. They’ve been in every game this season — 11 of their first 14 games were decided by two runs or less — but they had also dropped two of three games twice to St. Louis and once each to the New York Mets and Tampa Bay.

This game was a chance to turn around some good feeling before the Reds head out for a three-city, 10-game road trip starting Friday in Chicago.

"He’s our ace, he’s our number one. We’ve got an outstanding bullpen but it was his game," said Price. "I think he understands that going into it we’re sitting at 5-9 and hadn’t won a series and this is a team we feel like we’ll be competing against all year for the division and every game is important. It doesn’t matter if it’s April or September, we need to win games."

The complete game was the seventh of Cueto’s career. Following an injury-riddled 2013 season, Cueto is back to throwing with confidence and conviction, much as he did in 2011-12 when he went 28-14 and carried a 2.58 ERA over 373 innings.

"I think he knows he’s held in high regard here and I think he embraces being our shut-down starter. I’ve never seen him back down to a hitter. I’ve never seen him quit. There’s an element to Johnny," said Price. "Anybody who had that ingredient for all of their 25 players could dominant this game. He doesn’t take plays off. He doesn’t give in. He competes.

"That game in Pittsburgh, the playoff game, it certainly wasn’t a great game but he never quit, he never backed down. He just kept coming after them. He just didn’t have a good game."

Wednesday was a good game, one of the best of his career. But, at least publicly, he took it in stride.

"You have to take it for what it is, and today I won," said Cueto.

His next start is scheduled to be next Tuesday back at the scene of the crime, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. Who knows what the atmosphere will be like? It would be hard to replicate the frenzy of last October when the Pirates and their fans were celebrating the end of 21 years without a winning, playoff baseball team.

The Pittsburgh crowd serenaded Cueto’s name that night and when he inadvertently dropped the ball on the mound during the game the song grew louder.

"They just exacerbated something that was benign," said Price.

When Cueto takes the ball next Tuesday in Pittsburgh, don’t expect him to back down for the challenge that is sure to greet him.

"I always want to be that way but sometimes you keep fighting, you keep fighting," said Cueto. "I’ve always been fighting because my mom that’s the way she raised us. I think I’m always going to be that way."