Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker remains cautiously optimistic about starter Johnny Cueto, who is just one start removed from a long stint on the disabled list.
It's difficult to blame him given Cueto's injury history.
Trying to move closer to securing a third playoff appearance in four years, Cincinnati sends Cueto to the mound in Monday night's series opener with the New York Mets.
Cueto (5-2, 3.02 ERA) missed the start of the 2011 season with arm trouble, then went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in 2012 to help the Reds win the NL Central. But after a healthy season, he left Game 1 of the division series against San Francisco after only eight pitches with pulled muscles in his side.
The right-hander was enjoying a solid start to 2013 before straining a lat muscle in a loss to Texas on June 28, forcing him to the DL. He was activated last Monday, and threw five scoreless innings in his 6-1 win over Houston.
"That's a tremendous shot in the arm for our team,'' Baker said. "Let's hope that he continues to be well, continues to get better (and) his endurance gets better.''
Though Cueto said he felt fine after that outing, Baker is taking a cautious approach, especially with the playoffs right around the corner. Cincinnati (89-67) still is in the mix for a second straight Central crown while leading Washington by five games for a wild-card spot.
"There's not a whole bunch of people that can fill that slot better than Johnny," Baker told the team's official site. "It depends on how he feels, and there's a chance (the final six) games are going to be pretty important."
The Reds have won five of six after taking two of three from Pittsburgh with Sunday's 11-3 win. They're tied atop the wild-card standings with the Pirates, who they face in a three-game series at home to end the regular season.
"You can't overlook the Mets thinking about the Pirates and then the Mets mess you up," Baker said. "They're going to try and beat us, too."
New York (71-84) is coming off a three-game sweep of Philadelphia after Sunday's 4-3 victory. Rookie Juan Lagares had three hits while driving in a run, and shortstop Wilfredo Tovar added an RBI single in the seventh in his major league debut.
Philadelphia committed an error that allowed another run to score on Tovar's hit.
The Mets are seeking their first four-game winning streak since July 7-10 as they send former Red Aaron Harang to the mound Monday.
Harang (0-1, 4.91) went 5-11 with a 5.76 ERA with Seattle before being designated for assignment Aug. 26, though he's shown signs of improvement since signing with New York.
The right-hander gave up three runs and struck out 10 in six innings while suffering a 7-2 loss to Washington on Sept. 12 before giving up four runs and striking out eight in five frames of the Mets' 5-4 comeback win over San Francisco on Wednesday.
Harang, who went 75-80 for the Reds from 2003-10, is 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA in three starts against his former team. He gave up two runs in six innings to beat Cincinnati 4-2 while with the Mariners on July 5.