CINCINNATI -- It's a tough art to learn at any age, but at only 25, Johnny Cueto seems to have successfully put together both the physical and mental sides of pitching. This certainly didn't happen overnight. Cueto made his Major League debut a little more than three years ago as an electric, but raw, 21-year-old. "You hope over the course of a guy's career that they get better," manager Dusty Baker said. "Sometimes it's a natural process. When they get better, it's what they're supposed to do. You're looking for improvement. A lot of times, it's not any one thing. Sometimes everything comes together, and you hope it stays that way for days, weeks, months and even years."
Cueto is having the kind of success the Reds pray never fades, especially during a season in which they've tread water at times and watched the rotation underperform the first two months. Through nine starts, Cueto is 5-2 with a 1.63 ERA. He gave up one run and only two hits over seven innings in the Reds' much-needed 10-2 win over the Yankees on Wednesday night in Game 2 of a day-night doubleheader. That performance came after his originally scheduled start on Monday was moved back because of a stiff neck, followed by Tuesday's rainout. Cueto doesn't qualify for the National League ERA lead because he has only 60 2/3 innings under his belt after spending the first month of the season on the disabled list with irritation in his right bicep and tricep. Coming off his best season, 2010 -- in which he went 12-7 with a 3.64 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 31 starts and a career-high 185 2/3 innings -- Cueto is on pace to do even better in '11. He has 42 strikeouts against only 18 walks, and he's allowed only four home runs, one by Nick Swisher on Wednesday. The 39-37 Reds entered Thursday's off-day only two games out of first place in the NL Central despite having the 13th-ranked rotation in the league. The starting five have stepped up to another level the past two-plus weeks, with a 2.59 ERA over the past 16 games. But Cueto has been pitching at an elite level all season and has been a stopper presence that's kept the Reds in the hunt. He has yet to give up more than three runs in any of his starts, and he's had four starts in which he did not give up an earned run. Opposing hitters are batting just .193. In his four June starts, all lasting seven innings, he's 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA. If he keeps this up, All-Star consideration would certainly have to come his way. "I think the closest we've got to a No. 1 right now is Johnny," Bronson Arroyo said. "A guy that's able to go out there, even without his Grade-A stuff, and give the other teams fits because he throws hard. He's kind of dialing it in." In the first season of a four-year, $27 million contract signed in January, Cueto has hasn't let up the gas on his competitive drive. "I feel happy about my contract, but I'm not going to stop working," Cueto said through an interpreter. "I have four years. I want another big one after this contract." Fueled by increased maturity and the security of a multiyear contract, Cueto carries himself with more poise. Seemingly gone are the erratic days when he would let one bad pitch turn into one bad inning -- or worse -- because of a bad attitude or mound presence. Now when he finds himself hitting a rough patch during a game, he's not afraid to step off the rubber. If there's a hit or pressure-filled moment, he's liable to take a few steps from the mound to regain or maintain his composure. "He's changed, big-time. He has more experience as he's gotten older," good friend Edinson Volquez said. "Sometimes, two or three years ago, he'd have a bad outing and put his head down. Now he keeps his head up. He says, 'I got it next time.' Two or three years ago, he'd say, 'I don't know -- they might send me down.' Now he tries to get better for his next start." Case in point: After giving up a single and a walk and throwing a wild pitch on Wednesday, Cueto got Robinson Cano to bounce a ground ball to first baseman Joey Votto. But Cueto dropped Votto's toss as he covered the bag for an error that loaded the bases. Next came Ramiro Pena, who grounded into a fielder's-choice play at the plate. Cueto escaped the mess unscathed on his 102nd pitch when pinch-hitter Jorge Posada grounded out to second base. "As a pitcher, I like the challenge," Cueto said. "Those are good hitters. I took a deep breath, and I did my job." "Johnny has really grown as a pitcher and as a man," Baker said. "He was not panicking or getting frustrated at our own players or anything -- he was just pitching. Boy, that was huge for him." Cueto is also evolving in regard to his delivery and mechanics, and he's lessened the number of times he overthrows or falls off the mound in his follow-through. This season, he's also gradually introduced a windup in which his back briefly turns to the hitter. On Wednesday, the change was more obvious, and reminiscent of the way 1970s great Luis Tiant pitched. "It's something different I'm going to keep doing," Cueto said. "When I was close to releasing the ball, I don't see the hitter. But the release point was perfect at the right time. I think it's going to be tough, because I'm hiding the ball real good now." This isn't the first time Cueto has enjoyed a sensational start to the season. In 2009, he was 8-4 with a 2.69 ERA over his first 16 starts. But after he wasn't selected for the All-Star team, he went 0-6 with a 10.64 ERA over the next eight starts. There doesn't appear to be any worries that Cueto would be prone to a similar swoon. "Everything with him right now is pretty good," Volquez said. "Everything is going well."