Mar 31, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) follows through during the second inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park.
CINCINNATI — There is no baseball player despised more in Cincinnati than Yadier Molina. For Reds fans there was no worse way to lose a game, let alone an Opening Day game, than what happened Monday.
Johnny Cueto was cruising along one out into the seventh inning before Molina hit the first pitch he saw out to left field for a home run, the lone run of the game as the Cardinals beat the Reds 1-0.
Cueto and St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright matched each other out for out in a duel worthy of two legitimate No. 1 starters. St. Louis managed to get just two other runners to second base in the game, leaving a total of six runners on. The Reds couldn’t take advantage of three errors by St. Louis, including two in the eighth inning when they had runners at first and third and no one out.
In that sense the game was a bad reminder of last season when the Reds struggled to get key hits at key times and left runners on base in the worst possible situations. They were hitless in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position, leaving nine runners on base in total.
The Reds would prefer to leave the disappointment of 2013 behind them. They’d rather focus on the promise that was Cueto’s start Monday.
The last time he started a game that mattered was last October in Pittsburgh. Cueto left in the fourth inning of a 6-2 loss to the Pirates in the National League wild card game to the sounds of the PNC crowd serenading him with his name.
Last season was one to forget for Cueto. He made just 11 starts because of injuries. Every time he got started last year, there was a disabled list trip just waiting for him.
Five pitches into this season came another scare. Cueto was struck on the inside of his left wrist by a ball hit by St. Louis lead-off hitter Matt Carpenter. Cueto recovered the ball, threw to first baseman Joey Votto to retire Carpenter and then got a quick visit by trainer Paul Lessard, who has earned his keep way too much already this spring.
Cueto was fine and he proved it the rest of his outing.
Monday was Cueto at his best. He threw 97 pitches, 67 of them for strikes. He walked just one batter while striking out eight. If not for a pair of hits by Matt Adams against a defensive shift that left the third base area unmanned, including a squib shot that barely passed third base fair but was good enough to get Adams a double, the Cardinals wouldn’t have had a hit against Cueto.
"I felt really good today," said Cueto. "All of my pitches were where I wanted. I located where I wanted. Everything was good."
Even Molina’s home run wasn’t necessarily a bad pitch. Molina just got the better of Cueto on it. He didn’t hit a deep shot but it was deep enough at 368 feet to get into the left field stands.
"It was a cutter and I wanted to throw it for a strike. He was really waiting for that pitch, he was really aggressive, and you know what happened," said Cueto.
The Reds never found that one answer against Wainwright or any of the four St. Louis relievers who worked the final two innings. That wasn’t on Cueto, however. For the third consecutive Opening Day he threw seven innings and allowed just three hits. He’s given up just two runs in those 21 innings.
If Cueto can stay healthy and return to this kind of pitching, it’s bodes well for the Reds as they try to survive a first month that includes 19 games against playoff teams from last season while eight players are on the disabled list.
"We believe in what we got and I’m very excited to see Johnny pitching the way he did because everybody knows he was a little bit banged up in Arizona," said catcher Brayan Pena. "For him to come here the way he did on opening day and perform the way he did, that’s very exciting. That’s something we have to feel very happy and very proud about because everybody knows what we’ve been through in this spring training. It hasn’t been an easy one for all of us."