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Reds' fate rests in Cueto's arm

| Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, 10:09 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto allowed one hit by the Pirates through eight innings on Friday, May 31, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto pitches against the Pirates at PNC Park.

CINCINNATI – Johnny Cueto had his doubts.

The right-hander was scheduled to pitch on Sunday in the regular-season finale against the Pirates, so he didn't know whether he'd get to take the mound in what could be the Cincinnati Reds' only playoff game this season.

On Saturday, after the Pirates had clinched home-field advantage and Mat Latos revealed that his arm was hurting, Cueto got his answer. Latos was out and Cueto was in for the winner-take-all wild-card game Tuesday at PNC Park.

Following a bullpen session at Great American Ball Park on Sunday, the 27-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic was all smiles.

“It's a really meaningful game for me and the most important game of the season,” Cueto said through assistant trainer and translator Tomas Vera. “All I have to do is just keep doing my job. Baseball is still the same, and I hope to do what I have to do.”

It hasn't been an easy season for Cueto, nor was it an easy playoff experience in 2012.

At 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA last year, Cueto was named the starting pitcher for Game 1 of the National League Division Series at San Francisco. He threw only eight pitches, however, before leaving the game with pulled muscles in his right side. The Reds hoped he'd heal in time for Game 5, but it didn't happen.

“I was so excited, I was so emotional for the game that I overdid it,” Cueto said. “I was trying to do too much, and I really don't know what happened that day or how I got to that point, but it was more about being excited and emotional about the game.”

Cueto spent most of this season battling a right lat injury that first cropped up in a game against the Pirates on April 13. He's been on the disabled list on three occasions for the same injury, and Tuesday will be just his third appearance since missing all of July and August and returning on Sept. 16. He has gone 1-0 with an 0.75 ERA in two starts since returning.

“You could see him working, you could see him getting closer and closer, but we weren't sure how quickly he would come,” Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco said. “Especially when you're off that long, your ability to repeat your delivery and ability to throw quality pitches doesn't come back as quick, but with him it came back super quick and he's looked sharp.”

When he's on, Cueto has a devastating sinker and dangerous four-seam fastball, both thrown at around 93 miles per hour. Cueto also has a slider he can throw for strikes and a good changeup that he throws to righties and lefties.

“He's such a good competitor out there,” Reds pitcher Homer Bailey said. “He locates really well and his stuff's got a lot of movement and he can really keep runners off balance, whether it's from the wind-up or the stretch.”

Cueto has been particularly lethal pitching against the Pirates. He's beaten them more than any other team in his career at 13-4 (2.37 ERA) and has an 8-2 lifetime record and 1.90 ERA at PNC Park.

“I know I faced him once this year in New York and want to say hit a first-pitch slider for a homer, but he's a tough guy to face,” Pirates right fielder Marlon Byrd said. “He knows how to locate his pitches, and he has a little bit of deception with his back turn with a runner on second base or from his wind-up. I'm not sure what his velocity is going to be, but if he's locating he's always going to be tough.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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