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A target for Bucs fans, Cueto shows rust on mound

A target for Bucs fans, Cueto shows rust on mound

A target for Bucs fans, Cueto shows rust on mound

PITTSBURGH -- "Cueee-to! Cueee-to! Cueee-to!"

Twenty-one years of pent-up frustration and fandom culminated in this moment of Tuesday night's National League Wild Card Game at PNC Park.

Johnny Cueto was on the mound for the Cincinnati Reds, and 40,487 Pittsburghians were taunting him, mocking him, subjecting him to the sound of a baseball town reborn.

NL Wild Card

With that sound raining down upon Cueto in the second inning, the ball slipped out of his hand and the game essentially slipped out of Cincinnati's grasp. He had just served up a solo shot to Marlon Byrd and now, with Cueto's own name turned into a "Darryl"-like jab, he left one hanging for Russell Martin, who promptly pounded it out to left-center field to make it 2-0 Pirates in a game they'd go on to win, 6-2, to end the Reds' season and advance to the NL Division Series.

"I think the crowd got to him a little bit," Martin said later. "I don't know if he was rattled a little bit, but I definitely think it played with the focus he had out there."

That was one theory, and it was the prevailing one. But Cueto laughed it off, just as he chuckled when the crowd noise began to take over.

"I don't listen to them," Cueto said through interpreter Tomas Vera. "It's like Opening Day, like any other game. It doesn't scare me."

Remember, Cueto has pitched in the Dominican Winter League, where crazy crowds are par for the course. And this was the same guy whom manager Dusty Baker had praised pregame for his calm under pressure.

"If you know Johnny Cueto like I know Johnny Cueto," Baker had said, "he thrives in this type of environment. ... The one thing about Johnny, he loves pressure. He loves to be in the big games."

Cincinnati undoubtedly took a risk in inserting Cueto into this big game. The Reds probably would have gone with Mat Latos, but the bone spurs in his pitching elbow complicated their alignment.

This was just Cueto's third start since returning from a lat strain -- his third trip to the disabled list this season. And as good as Cueto looked in the first two starts, allowing just one earned run over 12 innings, those came against Astros and Mets teams serving as also-rans in the standings. A hot Bucs team basking in the glow of a postseason berth before a hungry fan base is another story.

Cueto has usually thrived in this ballpark, but on this night, he looked rusty right from the get-go. He got through the first inning unscathed, but he was leaving his pitches up, and the two fly-ball outs recorded that inning were hard-hit outs.

"He never really got below the zone and didn't have his bottoming action like he normally does," catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "And that can happen to a pitcher. It's going to happen all throughout the season at certain points. He only had two starts, and he didn't have a chance to work through and get back to where he can be, so it was tough for him. He was battling and trying to make the adjustment and trying to get the ball down, but he never really got to the point where he's as sharp as he can be."

Hanigan said it seemed as though Cueto was falling back off the mound instead of driving through it. After the Pirates' two-run second inning, Cueto even took the bold step of pitching from the stretch to start the third, opening the door to questions about how comfortable he was feeling physically.

"It was my decision," he said. "I felt more comfortable that way. I wanted to see what the results were if I do it that way."

The results weren't any better. Cueto gave up an unearned run in the third and served up a two-out double that would lead to another run in the fourth. His outing stood in stark contrast to the shutdown stylings of Francisco Liriano, who breezed through Cincinnati's bats.

Was the crowd the cause? Or was Cueto simply doomed by a mechanical flaw? You'll get conflicting opinions, of course.

"I know they got in Cueto's head a little bit," Martin said. "He might not admit to it. It was definitely a tough environment for an opposing team to play in. It was special."

Or as A.J. Burnett opined, "That's what happens when you get the Burgh into it."

The evidence that the crowd had gotten to Cueto was certainly compelling. It's one thing to be up with your pitches, but it's another to leave an absolute meatball over the middle mere seconds after fumbling the ball while getting roundly ridiculed.

This, then, is a discussion Cueto simply can't win. Because no matter what he feels about it, no matter what his Reds teammates feel about it, what we'll remember most about the NL Wild Card Game and Pittsburgh's long-awaited return to October is that sound of "Cueee-to! Cueee-to!" ringing in the air, and then the thwack of Martin's bat.

"That's a good story in like 40 years when I have grandkids," Martin said.

Pardon Cueto if he'd prefer to leave the story untold.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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