There’s no denying the talent in the right arms of Johnny Cueto and Ian Snell, the two diminutive but hard-throwing pitchers that the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates are hoping can help anchor their rotations in the near future.
For that to happen, they’ll need to begin getting off to better starts.
Cueto and Snell will try to put an end to their first-inning struggles on Thursday when they match up in the finale of a three-game set between the Reds and Pirates at PNC Park.
The 22-year-old Cueto (7-11, 5.01 ERA) was an overnight phenom after his first career start on April 3, when he gave up one hit and struck out 10 over seven innings in a win over Arizona. But he’s had some considerable struggles in his next 23 starts, and he hasn’t led the Reds (53-68) to a win since July 3.
Lately, most of Cueto’s issues have come in the first inning. Of the 11 earned runs he’s allowed in his last three starts, eight of those have come in his first trip to the mound.
Cueto is 1-1 with a 5.73 ERA against Pittsburgh, and hasn’t allowed a run in the first.
Snell (4-9, 6.06) won 14 games for the Pirates (55-65) in 2006, and had an impressive 3.76 ERA last season despite only winning nine games. But he’s been abysmal in 2008, winning just twice in his last 20 starts.
Like Cueto, Snell’s primary problems of late have come in the first inning. He’s given up nine earned runs in the first frame in his five starts since the All-Star break, going 1-2 with a 6.58 ERA in those outings.
Snell allowed three runs over six innings at Philadelphia on Saturday, but two of those came in the first in a 4-2 loss.
“Ian struggled in the first inning, but after that, he started to throw the ball well,” manager John Russell told the Pirates’ official Web site. “Ian is getting better, but he still suffers from those lapses and they seem to come in the first inning. Once he gets through that first inning, he’s OK.”
In his last four starts against the Reds, Snell is 1-3 with a 9.55 ERA, allowing seven runs in the first.
While Pittsburgh had hoped Snell would emerge as a front-of-the-rotation starter in 2008, it’s instead been Paul Maholm who’s seized that role. Maholm lasted eight innings for the seventh time this season on Wednesday as the Pirates took the middle game of the series from Cincinnati 5-2.
“He’s been very good for us, obviously,” Russell said. “When we send him out there, we know we have a good chance to win.”
Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. are no longer part of the Reds’ outfield, and like the Pirates - who dealt away outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady - Cincinnati is finding it difficult to score runs. The Reds have put up 25 runs in losing seven of their last eight games.
Pittsburgh has scored just 23 in its last eight, though the lineup should get a boost Wednesday. That’s when first baseman Adam LaRoche, who was hitting .413 with eight homers and 21 RBIs since June 30, is expected to come off the disabled list. LaRoche will join his brother, third baseman Andy, in the infield for the first time since Andy was acquired as part of the Bay trade on July 31.