Coming off career year, Cueto ready to lead Reds

Coming off career year, Cueto ready to lead Reds

SAN FRANCISCO -- Reds manager Dusty Baker sits at the microphone and says he is sorry, but he will have to keep this short. Since he suffered a mini-stroke two weeks ago, he has been under orders to conserve his energy, to keep his emotions in check.

Then Baker is asked about Johnny Cueto, the right-hander who will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Saturday night -- on TBS at 9:30 p.m. ET -- and how Cueto endured a series of starts in early September when he was "not himself."

Reds vs. Giants

Suddenly, Baker's blood pressure is rising. Not because of this particular question, but because he is remembering the irksome questions back then.

"It got to the point where it spoiled us," Baker said, "where everybody was asking, 'What's wrong with Johnny? Is he tired, is he this or is he that?'"

Baker had a simple explanation.

"Sometimes, you just go through a bad streak," he said.

Tale of the Tape: Game 1
2012 Regular Season
Overall: 33 GS, 19-9, 2.78 ERA, 49 BB, 170 K's
Overall: 32 GS, 16-5, 2.79 ERA, 51 BB, 193 K's
Key stat: Allow one earned run in five innings in only postseason start in 2010
Key stat: Didn't allow an earned run in 21 1/3 innings in three 2010 playoff starts
At AT&T Park
2012: 1 GS, 0-1, 3.00 ERA
Career: 2 GS, 1-1, 1.38 ERA
2012: 15 GS, 8-3, 2.03 ERA
Career: 121 GS, 47-38, 2.98 ERA
Against this opponent
2012: 1 GS, 0-1, 3.00 ERA
Career: 4 GS, 2-1, 1.93 ERA
2012: 2 GS, 0-2, 5.54 ERA
Career: 10 GS, 4-5, 3.54 ERA
Loves to face: Pablo Sandoval, 1-for-9
Hates to face: Xavier Nady 5-for-8, 3 RBI
Loves to face: Drew Stubbs, 1- for-11, 4 K's
Hates to face: Jay Bruce, 6-for-13, 4 RBI
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: He isn't fazed away from home -- has a 2.77 ERA on the road this season
Why he'll win: Came up big in three 2010 postseason starts, not allowing an earned run
Pitcher beware: His 3.26 ERA in the second half is nearly a run higher than his 2.36 ERA before the break
Pitcher beware: Allowed 250 fly balls this season and could be trouble for long-ball-loving Reds
Bottom line: Nullify Giants home-field advantage
Bottom line: Continue 2010 clutch pitching

Even with his September blip, Cueto, 26, was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in 33 starts and a career-best 217 innings and 170 strikeouts in 2012. His ERA was the lowest from a Reds pitcher since Jose Rijo in 1993. No Red had won as many as 19 games since Danny Jackson won 23 in 1988. No Reds right-hander had 19 wins and an ERA below 3.00 since Jim Maloney in 1965. In 12 of his starts, Cueto allowed one or no runs. In 20 of his starts, he gave up two or fewer runs.

In other words, Cueto completed his long ascension to ace.

"I don't have to change anything," Cueto said. "I started Opening Day and I was the first guy for the staff. All I need to do is a little more concentration. It's best of five, so just concentrate a little more. But I don't have to change anything."

Cueto's ascension was not an overnight story. He debuted in the Majors in 2008 with only four Triple-A starts under his belt, and in his early seasons, was either a No. 3 or No. 4 starter prone to high pitch counts, command issues and shortened outings.

In 2008, he had a 4.81 ERA in 31 starts. In 2009, he was 11-11 with a 4.41 ERA. In 2010, he was 12-7 with a 3.64 ERA as the Reds won the division, and was rewarded with a four-year, $27 million contract with a $10 million club option for 2015.

Cueto responded with a 2.31 ERA in 2011 but was limited to 24 starts and 156 innings by injuries; a right biceps issue early in the season and a strained 'lat' muscle late.

In 2012, Cueto was both healthy and productive.

"I think the main thing for him is just his mentality, his mindset," Reds catcher and season-long battery mate Ryan Hanigan said. "He really expects and works hard enough and demands to be one of the best guys in the league. I think he's got the stuff. He embraces the status of being an ace and works his butt off every day to be one of the elite guys in the league."

The work ethic is a new addition to Cueto's arsenal, Baker said.

"Johnny's a runner now," he said. "I mean, he wasn't always a runner, and we stressed to him that in my time, most of the great pitchers I've seen were runners.

"At the same time, Johnny has learned to command the strike zone, how not to have to strike out everybody. That's made him a good pitcher."

So did a notable mechanical adjustment. Last season, Cueto began turning his back on hitters during his windup, a twisting motion reminiscent of former Red Sox and Indians star Luis Tiant.

"Where he came up with that? I don't know," Baker said.

Coincidentally, Cueto this season had 10 pickoffs, tied for the best in baseball. According to Reds TV statistician Joel Luckhaupt, Cueto was the first right-handed pitcher with at least 200 innings pitched since Tiant in 1968 to not allow a steal of second or third base. One runner did steal home against Cueto on a botched suicide squeeze.

The Reds' Game 2 starter, Bronson Arroyo, called Cueto "a true No. 1."

"He's a guy you want to lean on in Game 7 of a playoff series," Arroyo said. "Johnny has emerged as that in the last year and three quarters since he came off the disabled list. For him, I think it was always there, he was just off a tick in his program and his preparation, and his idea of how he wanted to beat guys. When you have very limited innings in the Minor Leagues and you have dominant stuff, you don't have to learn to beat hitters, because you can just bulldoze them. When you get to this level, you're not going to bulldoze anyone."

Cueto hit his rough patch by losing his first three starts of September, including an outing against the Marlins on Sept. 15 in which he allowed a season-high six earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. But Cueto's velocity remained steady, and the Reds made no effort to back him off or give him extra rest. In fact, the rotation was rearranged after an off-day to keep Cueto on four days' rest.

Worries abated when Cueto won his final three starts and capped the season with a strong seven innings at Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Giants present a favorable matchup; Cueto is 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA in four career starts against San Francisco, and has a 1.38 ERA in two career starts at AT&T Park.

Hanigan expects no fear from his pitcher in the postseason.

"I think he has all the confidence in the world," Hanigan said. "Having a good one right out of the gate would help in terms of the rest of the series."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.