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Cincinnati Reds Pin Playoff Hopes on Return of Ace Johnny Cueto

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COMMENTARY | The first half of September has transformed the Cincinnati Reds into the Big Red Roller Coaster from which there is no escape for the fans in Reds Country.

From the exhilaration of winning six out of seven games at home against division-leading teams to capping a second-straight series loss to division cellar-dwellers with a heartbreaking defeat, the Reds have run the gamut of great pitching and timely hitting to horrid offense (two total runs in three losses to the lowly Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers) and the kind of snake-bit luck that was on display in the Reds' series finale loss against the Brewers in which Reds slugger Jay Bruce was robbed of a three-run home run in the ninth inning.

The Reds' offense will need to shake the inconsistency that has plagued them too often in 2013 if the team is to make one final push for a postseason berth. But the need for more offense may have just gotten a little less critical with the return of Reds ace Johnny Cueto.

Dominant Ace

Cueto's 2.96 ERA ranks fourth among NL starters with at least 600 innings pitched since 2010. Only Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee and R.A. Dickey have better ERAs. Perhaps more importantly for the Reds, Cueto has the second-highest winning percentage among the same pool of starters (.657) behind only Roy Halladay. Cueto was a 19-game winner last year and has pitched well for the most part in 2013 in his nine starts (3.33 ERA) between his three stints on the disabled list.

Cueto's Return

Since the Reds can't realistically have Cueto rehab at the minor league level, they are doing the next best thing by having him pitch in his return against the Houston Astros. Cueto was only stretched out to a 60-pitch live batting practice during his last throwing session, but Cueto should be able to increase that load if he is pain-free from the lat injury that has hampered him since last postseason.

The Reds' rotation schedule calls for a spot start from Greg Reynolds before the five-man rotation is set once again for the final nine games of the season. As the rotation stands with Cueto's return, Cueto would also pitch against the New York Mets at home and end the Reds' regular season against the Pittsburgh Pirates at home.

Postseason Rotation

The Reds have struggled to the point that winning the NL Central has become much more difficult, and the late-season surge by the Washington Nationals has made a race out of the second wild-card spot. But if the Reds can either win the division or claim a wild-card berth and advance to a divisional series, the Reds' rotation gets a significant boost from a healthy Cueto with three starts under his belt.

The return of Cueto to the rotation also allows the Reds' bullpen to improve with the return of Cueto's rotation replacement -- Tony Cingrani -- to a left-handed specialist role down the stretch once Cingrani returns from the back spasms that have knocked him out of the rotation for a second time.

With Cueto back in the rotation, the Reds just got a whole lot better down the stretch if Cueto can make his third time back from the disabled list a charm.

Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years. You can read his articles about the 2012 Reds' season here.

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