Johnny Beisbol back for Reds encore

There is the cloud of Cueto's future hanging around him and the Reds. This is the final year of Cueto's contract.

Al Behrman/AP

The final Sunday of a baseball season that won’t see October is an easy day to go through the motions. Just get it over with, shove a few final items into the duffel bags and then get out of town with only the nearest island golf resort on the brain.

That was the scenario the last time the Reds played at Great American Ball Park. September 28 of last year was the final game of a less-than-memorable baseball season, a season in which a surge into the All-Star break was followed by injury, disappointment and a standings free fall.

There is no going through the motions with Johnny Cueto, unless that motion is a torso twist before delivery of the baseball.

Baseball returns to Cincinnati Monday. Johnny Beisbol returns to GABP against the same Pittsburgh team where six months ago he capped off one of the greatest seasons for a Reds pitcher by doing everything possible in a 4-1 win over the Pirates. Eight innings, six hits given up, seven strikeouts, one run allowed from the mound. One improbable single that produced the go-ahead run late in the game.

Cueto last season became the first Reds pitcher since Danny Jackson in 1988 to win 20 games, and he was the first right-hander to win that many since 1965 when Jim Maloney (20) and Sammy Ellis (22) both did so. Cueto led or tied for the National League lead in five different categories – starts, innings pitched, strikeouts, opponents’ batting average and daytime ERA – and was second in ERA and wins. Look at almost any statistical breakdown of pitching in 2014 and Cueto’s name is there to be found.

Encore? Perhaps become the first Reds pitcher to win a Cy Young award, something he was denied last season when he finished second in balloting to Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

There’s no reason to expect Cueto can’t be all that he was last season once again. To expect otherwise would discount 2014 as a fluke. It would discount what Cueto has accomplished since he first signed with the Reds 11 years ago as an 18-year-old one flawed outfielder-turned-hurler from the Dominican Republic.

Cueto is one of the best in the game, and it’s not by accident.

"There’s the basic evolution of a major-league number one starter and the first thing is appreciating a work ethic and a routine that works. Number two is accepting the responsibility of being an ace, of being great. They’re completely different," said Bryan Price, who was Cueto’s pitching coach for four seasons with the Reds before taking over as manager last season. "As much as we all fantasize about being this Hall of Famer and a constant, regular All-Star, I don’t think anyone appreciates the type of work it takes to get to that level and remain at that level. I think it’s been a process for Johnny that every year he’s accepted more responsibility. Every year he’s found a way to work harder and more diligently."

It’s part of the package with Cueto. One doesn’t just wake up being able to command five different pitches against major-league hitters.

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"You can’t be comfortable and say ‘I’m going to do it again’ because pitching is not that easy," said Cueto through assistant trainer and interpreter Tomas Vera. "Pitching is hard. You can’t just go up on the mound and start throwing and think that things are going to happen like that. You have to keep working. You never stop working. I feel relaxed but I cannot feel comfortable."

There is the cloud of Cueto’s future hanging around him and the Reds. This is the final year of Cueto’s contract. The Reds are getting a baseball bargain in Cueto’s $10 million salary. His representatives have said there will be no negotiations once the season begins. Reds general manager Walt Jocketty had no comment last week when asked about an update on a possible extension before the deadline.

As much as 2015 could be an encore, it could also be a swan song in Cincinnati for Cueto.

"I don’t think about those things," said Cueto. "All I think about is just to do my job, pitching, and take this team to the playoffs and finally take the team all the way up to where we have to go. I’m like the horse, the race horses that have (blinders) on the side. I don’t think about those things. I just think about one thing. I just use those (blinders) and all I think about is my race in front of me."

Cueto’s 2.73 ERA over the last five seasons is second only to Kershaw (2.26) among pitchers with at least 130 starts. Among active pitchers with at least 1,000 innings, Cueto’s 3.27 career ERA is sixth-best. He needs five more strikeouts to reach 1,000 for his career.

While Cueto says he can’t stay comfortable, his presence is a comfort to everyone else around him.

"I know what we’re going to do is get every last ounce of what he has to give every single day," said Price. "I’ll take whatever comes of that because I know he’s going to be completely committed to doing everything he can to help us win and help make us a better ball club. I don’t think there is anything standing in Johnny’s way from having continuous outstanding years."

Flashback to that final game last September. The Reds and Pirates are tied 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning. Jason Bourgeois has led off the inning with a triple but is still there after Zack Cozart lines out to third baseman Josh Harrison. Ramon Santiago is to be a pinch-hitter for Cueto but Price calls Santiago back to the dugout. Out comes Cueto to face All-Star lefty Tony Watson.  

Cueto works the count full, fouling off a couple of pitches in the process, before sending one back up the middle to give the Reds the lead. Price’s move wasn’t found in any managerial "How To" book but it was a no-brainer, hit or no hit.

That’s the Johnny Beisbol factor.

"I don’t know what exactly we were thinking in that situation but it goes back to Johnny being a competitive guy," said catcher Devin Mesoraco. "It’s the last day of the season and some guys could mail it in but he was up there battling and fighting like it was the seventh game of the World Series. And then he wanted to go back out for the ninth. He’s just a great competitor.

"He’s somebody you really, really want on your side in whatever situation it is."