Cueto holds Reds' playoff future in hands
CINCINNATI -- Johnny Cueto takes the mound Tuesday night in PNC Park and he will be holding more than a $20 Rawlings baseball with Bud Selig’s signature on it. He will be holding the 2013 future of the Cincinnati Reds in his right hand.
If the Reds beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild card play-in game they move on to the National League Division Series. If they lose it becomes golf, hunting and snorkeling season.
For manager Dusty Baker, it is the right choice. “He is The Man,” said Baker. “He is Our Man. He is the most competitive person I’ve known in my life.”
And it was a last-minute decision. Mat Latos was scheduled to pitch, but after Saturday’s game against the Pirates he told pitching coach Bryan Price and the training staff that his arm hurt, something about floating bone chips.
Cueto was scheduled to pitch Sunday’s meaningless game, the regular-season finale against the Pirates, but Baker and Price did The Fast Shuffle and held Cueto back for Tuesday.
For Cueto it is a chance to make amends for what happened last year in San Francisco, in Game One of the National League Division Series. Cueto threw eight pitches and left with back spasms. He was supposed to pitch Game 5, but couldn’t answer the bell.
“I was so excited in San Francisco, so emotional, that I overdid it,” said Cueto. “I was trying too much and I don’t really know what happened (to his back) but I think it was about being too emotional for the game.”
Cueto spent three separate periods on the disabled list this season and the third time lasted for 10 weeks. It was thought when he returned September 15 that he would work out of the bullpen. But Cueto wanted to try starting.
He made two starts, one against Houston and one against the New York Mets, and was Cueto-esque against two bad teams — 1-0. 0.75 ERA, one run, eight hits, four walks, ten strikeouts in 12 innings.
There was a point where the Reds considered shutting him down for the season and then there was the bullpen thoughts. Many wondered if he could make it back.
“My thoughts were that I started feeling really good when I was hurt (lat injury) and I hoped that when I got back there would be a couple more games to go and hoped I could help them team. Now I’m happy they are counting on me in the biggest game of the year.”
So now he faces the resurgent Pirates in a hostile environment, the first-ever postseason game in PNC Park since it opened in 2001. Cueto is 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA in 13 starts and he is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against the Pirates.
Of his success against the Pirates, Cueto said, “I don’t know how to explain that. I just try to do my job. They have a great team with really good players so I have to do my job.
“I’m feeling really happy and I thank God for this opportunity,” said Cueto. “It is a meaningful game for me, the most important game of the season. All I have to do is keep doing my job. Baseball is still the same and I hope to do what I have to do.”
Cueto admits he was a bit confused when he was originally scheduled to pitch Sunday.
“I had my doubts about pitching Tuesday and I was thinking, ‘Wow, why are they using me Sunday in a game that won’t have any value for us. So I was waiting to see what happened and when the pitching coach called me in Saturday and told me I would be the starter Tuesday I really got happy, really got excited.”
After what happened in San Francisco last year, Cueto hopes to low-key it as much as possible, despite the pressure, despite the howling masses cheering against him.
“I’m going to try to keep it as normal as I can,” he said. “I always was like that for every game, emotional and excited. I always try to be the same, but it was a little more in San Francisco.”
After only two starts, there still is concern about Cueto’s well being, but he said, “After both my starts since I’ve been back I feel normal, like I’ve been pitching all year.”
As a whole, the Reds are thrilled to have the guy they consider their best pitchers on the mound.
“There’s no question about it, injury or not, Johnny is still our ace,” said first baseman Joey Votto. “ I know that Mat Latos has definitely put a lot of pressure on the pitching staff, challenging them through his performance and certainly set a high standard. Johnny looks like the same Johnny as when he was healthy last year. That’s why I call him our ace.”
Cueto paused after being questioned and said, “I’d like to say something to the Dominican Republic (his native country. I want to tell the people in my country to follow this game. There will be two Dominicans on the mound (Francisco Liriano for Pittsburgh). I want to give advice to the youth in Dominica that you have to work hard, continuing working hard, to do things like this.”