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Healthy Cueto set for third straight Opening Day start

Reds ace aims to stay on mound to string together full season, fulfill potential

Healthy Cueto set for third straight Opening Day start

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- There's nothing like starting Opening Day, Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto said on Thursday. The nicks, the aches and six weeks of Spring Training are all behind you.

"It's a great feeling, so much energy," Cueto said through an interpreter about his start against the Cardinals on Monday at Great American Ball Park. "It's the greatest thing in the world. The fans are fantastic, fanatic. Everybody wants that opportunity, to open the season."

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Cueto learned he had the honor for the third consecutive season from his new manager and old pitching coach, Bryan Price, on Wednesday. Price wanted to make sure that Cueto was healthy before making the decision public on Thursday morning.

There was the matter of some shoulder and back soreness that had caused him to miss a couple of Cactus League starts this spring.

"It wasn't anything really serious," Cueto said. "Just a couple of nicks, and they took me out for precautionary reasons."

There was the matter of those three separate stints on the disabled list last year with a strained right lat muscle that limited him to just 11 starts.

And 2012 didn't end very well, either. Before Game 1 of their National League Division Series against the eventual World Series champion Giants in San Francisco, Cueto felt a sharp pain in his lower back making his last two warmup pitches. He threw another eight pitches and never pitched again that postseason.

Cueto said on Thursday that he can't dwell on the injuries that have happened in the very recent past.

"I'm not worried about it at all," he said. "Those are last year's injuries and I'm prepared and ready to go. It was a difficult year for me because I wasn't able to help the team. That's the toughest part. Everyone goes through injuries, unfortunately."

It's not as if Price didn't have his qualms.

Cueto's six-year big league career has been one of unrequited promise. He was all-everything in 2012 prior to his physical collapse in the playoffs. His 19-9 record, 33 starts and 217 innings pitched were all personal highs.

"When he's healthy, he's been our No. 1 starter legitimately for the previous four years," Price said. The Reds starters have been beset by pitching injuries this spring, and Cueto has been among them. It started with Mat Latos, who had right elbow surgery in the offseason and then had to have a left knee scoped after his first bullpen outing of the spring. Mike Leake has had an abdominal injury and Homer Bailey has been dealing with a strained right groin. Both are in the rotation and are being counted on.

The Reds are opening the season with pitchers Latos, Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton and undoubtedly Brett Marshall on the disabled list. Marshall hurt the tendon on the middle finger of his right hand, pitching in a game against the White Sox on Wednesday.

"I think it was the third inning when he first felt it and that was it," Price said about Marshall. "I don't know. You're throwing a baseball and you strain a tendon in your finger. I just don't want anyone crossing the street right now."

Cueto pitched in a Minor League game on Tuesday, and Price held his breath. He allowed six runs on seven hits over five-plus innings against Cleveland's Class A Advanced Carolina affiliate, striking out 11 and tossing 89 pitches.

It wasn't the results but the length of the start that day that convinced Price he was ready to name Cueto his Opening Day pitcher.

"I talked to him [Wednesday] and told him I wanted him to go out and play some catch to make sure everything was OK," Price said. "And he said everything was fine. I didn't want to announce it yet. I wanted a little bit more time to make sure he was OK. So I'm comfortable now being able to make that declaration."

Cueto is slated to make his third consecutive Opening Day start for the Reds, all at home, the longest streak since Aaron Harang pitched five in a row from 2006-10. Cueto was the winner of a 4-0 victory over the Marlins in 2012 and wasn't credited with a decision last year in a 3-1 loss to the Angels that went 13 innings.

His Opening Day numbers are 1-0, with an 0.62 ERA -- 14 innings pitched, six hits, one earned run, four walks and 13 strikeouts.

That is the huge upside of a healthy Cueto and why Price is investing so much confidence in him.

"I'm happy that the club thought of me so highly and I'm honored to have that opportunity," Cueto said.

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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