HOUSTON -- As odd as it seems, it took all the way until game No. 107 for the Reds to make their first visit of the season to Minute Maid Park. Opposed by supreme nemesis Roy Oswalt and handed a 5-4 loss by the Astros in Monday's series opener, the Reds probably wouldn't have minded steering clear of sweltering Houston a while longer. After several days of overtaxing their bullpen in the previous three-game sweep by the Rockies, the Reds desperately needed Johnny Cueto to be solid. A 3-0 first-inning deficit, where Cueto threw 31 pitches, wasn't what they had in mind.
"That was a lot of pitches," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. None of those 31 pitches hurt the Reds or Cueto as much as the one bad pitch he threw in the third inning. Just after the Reds took a 4-3 lead on Adam Dunn's grand slam in the top of the frame, Cueto hung a 1-1 changeup to Geoff Blum, who hit it for what proved to be the game-winning two-run homer. "It was probably the worst changeup he's thrown in quite some time," Reds catcher Paul Bako said. "Unfortunately, Blum didn't miss it. Johnny actually threw it so high, I assumed Blum would pop it up. It's one of those I wish we had back." Cueto (7-10) gave up five earned runs and eight hits over six innings, with one walk and three strikeouts. His 110 pitches weren't economical, but considering how he started out, it wasn't the worst line he could have had. The first four Houston batters of the game reached safely. It started with a Kaz Matsui double to right field and Miguel Tejada's RBI single through the middle. Following a Lance Berkman walk, Carlos Lee's bloop single scored Tejada. On Blum's sacrifice fly to center field for the third run, Cueto made another rookie mistake by not backing up the plate as Jay Bruce's throw home got past Bako. It was an error charged to Bruce because a runner advanced from first to second base. Oswalt, in his first start off the disabled list with a strained left hip abductor, could have been put away early, but the Reds missed a golden chance in the second inning. Brandon Phillips' double and Dunn's bloop single put runners on first and third with no outs. Oswalt sidestepped the jam by striking out the next three batters. "You have to find a way to get those [RBIs] home," Baker said. "He struck out the side. We had him on the ropes. We knew he was on a limited pitch count and were hoping to get to him early." After Cueto recovered with a 1-2-3 second inning, he was bailed out by the offense in the top of the third. A two-out single by Ken Griffey Jr. and Phillips' walk off Oswalt loaded the bases for Dunn, who slugged a first-pitch grand slam to center field for his 30th homer and a 4-3 Reds lead. A Berkman one-out double and Blum's homer with two outs buried the momentum, and as it turned out -- the Reds. In three starts since the All-Star break, Cueto is 0-1 with a 7.27 ERA. "You hate to have them come right back and score after you scored," Baker said. "You want to get back in the dugout and add on some more. It's been a long time since I've seen a guy leave in the fifth with a one-run lead and end up winning the ballgame." Oswalt (7-8) allowed four earned runs and seven hits over five innings. He improved to 20-1 lifetime vs. Cincinnati, with a 2.55 ERA. Cueto's 129 innings leads the pitching staff. The club is keeping an eye on his innings total, and a scheduled off-day last week built in an extra day's rest for the right-hander. "He has more innings out of anyone here and he's still throwing the ball well," Baker said. Cincinnati, losers of four straight and six of its past eight games, has dropped to seven games under .500 at 50-57. The Astros (49-56) moved percentage points ahead to take over fourth place from the Reds. The Reds have 12 more games remaining with the Astros in the back-loaded schedule. "This is strange scheduling," Baker said before the game. "It's four months already, and we haven't been here one time and have only played two games. Very strange." Houston has won all three games over Cincinnati so far.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.