In his previous postseason appearance, Johnny Cueto of the Cincinnati Reds lasted eight entire pitches before leaving Game 1 of the NLDS in 2012 because of an oblique strain. It suffices that Cueto has unfinished business Tuesday night in the NL wild card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Cueto, who has made only two starts since coming off the disabled list in September after missing three months because of a similar musculature injury, was limited to 11 starts all season in 2013. Regardless, he is the Reds' best starting pitcher when healthy and he's healthy now. At least until he isn't. That factor, plus right-hander Mat Latos being unavailable because of bone spurs in his elbow, made the decision on whom to pitch easy for manager Dusty Baker. And, via MLB.com, the Reds clubhouse backs it up:
"There's no question about it -- injury or not -- Johnny is still our ace," first baseman Joey Votto said. "I know that Mat Latos, he's definitely put a lot of pressure on the pitching staff, challenging them through his performance and certainly set a really high standard. But Johnny, he was hurt a good percentage of the year and probably should have been an All-Star last year and received Cy Young votes. They just don't hand those things out. Johnny looks like the same Johnny, and that's why I think I call him our ace."
After Cueto went down against the San Francisco Giants a year ago, reliever Sam LeCure rode to the rescue and kept them off the board for 1 2/3 innings, giving Latos enough time to warm up and go four innings. Even though Cueto was lost for the rest of the series, the Reds won the game. So, even if Cueto were to have another short outing (knock on wood), the Reds know what to do.
In his two comeback starts, Cueto threw 82 and 99 pitches, respectively, so he should be sufficiently stretched out to give the Reds at least six innings, if not more. Cueto also has great numbers for his career against the Pirates (2.37 ERA in 21 starts) and even better splits at PNC Park (1.90 ERA in 13 starts). But, not to belabor the injury thing, after each of Cueto's starts at PNC this season, he went on the DL the next day. Strange coincidence.
At least the time off gave Cueto an opportunity to be Manny Ramirez's doppelganger, according to one sign in China, anyway.
Rumbunter takes a look at how the Bucs hitters have done against Cueto. One to watch for in particular: Marlon Byrd and his 1.560 OPS (albeit in 12 at-bats). Also worth noting: Garrett Jones' decent numbers (Justin Morneau has been starting at first base instead) and Pedro Alvarez hitting zero home runs in 20 plate career appearances.
On the bump for the Pirates will be left-hander Francisco Liriano, the team's ace in 2013. He also has postseason experience, including a start against the Yankees in 2010, but the results were mixed.
Both pitchers have a chance to dominate. Cueto, if his body lets him, and Liriano, if his command lets him.