It’s been almost two years since we’ve seen Johnny Cueto on the mound in a Reds uniform at Great American Ball Park. The date was July 19, 2015, a Sunday afternoon like today, and it felt like walking the Green Mile. Cueto only made it through four innings. That’s what happens when you pitch while your heart is breaking. As fans, we fought back the tears and felt emptiness that comes with inevitable loss. Not the loss of a game, but the passing of a joyful era.
Our enduring affection for Cueto is due in no small part to how his trajectory of success tracked that of the club itself.
Johnny Cueto entered our consciousness a lightning bolt. The 22-year-old retired the first 15 batters he faced on April 3, 2008 at GABP, striking out 10 Arizona Diamondbacks and walking none through 7 innings. But Cueto’s subsequent struggles that season and the next (61 starts, 4.61 ERA) matched losing records for the Reds under new manager Dusty Baker. The starting lineup on Cueto’s first day at work: Freel, Keppinger, Griffey, Phillips, Dunn, Encarnacion, Hatteberg, Bako and Cueto. But many better days were soon approaching.
From 2010 to 2013, the Reds run of success began with Johnny Cueto throwing a one-hitter against the Pirates. And it ended with him dropping the ball in that same PNC Park. Over those four seasons, Cueto managed a glittering ERA of 2.92. His shocking injury after throwing eight pitches in Game One of the NLDS haunts the organization and its fans to this day.
But winning two NL Central Championships is a big accomplishment. Cueto’s return today should serve a reminder of those oversized, consequential times.
The Reds traded half a season of Cueto to the Kansas City Royals for a fair return of Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed and John Lamb. Cueto made 13 regular season starts for the Royals (4.76 ERA, 4.06 FIP), threw a complete-game, two-hitter for Kansas City in the World Series and then left for free agency. He signed a 6-year deal with the Giants for $130 million, covering Cueto’s age 30-35 seasons.
Today’s game wasn’t Johnny Cueto’s first at GABP for a team other than the Reds. A year ago, wearing the same San Francisco Giants uniform, Cueto faced the Reds. The home team, led by Joey Votto’s 3-run homer, scored 6 runs off Cueto in 5 innings.
(If you’re imagining the Reds won that game, you’re probably suppressing memories of their calamitous May bullpen.)
A couple years ago, Nick Doran made a detailed case that Johnny Cueto was one of the best pitchers in Reds history. It’s hard to take issue with that.
Today, in his 100th start in GABP, Johnny Cueto struck out ten batters in 7 innings, just like he did in his first.
And our Cincinnati Reds (17-14) swept the Giants, have won five in a row and are 6-1 on the home stand. They remain atop the NL Central. Bring on the Yankees.
Boy, the Giants’ offense is awful. The only reason they aren’t last in runs scored is because the Kansas City Royals are a historically inept thing. But the Giants are dead last in skills like hitting home runs, with only 19. The Reds have 43. A rookie for the Yankees has 13. The Giants’ futility at the plate seemed to sap their intensity toward the end of the game. Perhaps you could say they … left their heart …
Today’s direct beneficiary of the listless Giants offense was Scott Feldman, who pitched a complete game shutout, striking out five and walking one.
The Reds managed six hits off Johnny Cueto in seven innings. Zack Cozart and Scott Schebler hit solo home runs. Billy Hamilton had a triple and a walk.
A final word on the Amir Garrett demotion. It was heartening to hear Chris Welsh make the point twice that there’s no convincing science behind the notion that conservative innings limits prevent pitching injuries. Bryan Price has worked closely with pitchers for years and we know what he thinks about innings limits:
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question,” Price said. “I don’t think it’s a problem. I think the problem is that what we’ve done with baseball is we’ve gotten to the point [where] we think we’re solving our arm issues by decreasing innings and pitch workload and there’s nothing in the data that suggests we’ve [done] anything other than to continue to cut open the arms of young pitchers that we are extremely cautious with, extremely cautious, to a fault cautious. And it is not helping.
“My personal opinion is I don’t care, at all, about innings workload as they’re written up right now. We’ve prescribed a very similar philosophy that the rest of Major League Baseball does for the most part in the industry. I don’t agree with it, but we tend to follow it. For me, if we said, ‘Hey, he’s going to be a starter.’ I’m giving [Lorenzen] the ball 30-plus times and letting him pitch. That’s what I would do.”
Yes, in the middle of his interview with Jim Day, Pete Rose did say, “Do you want to bet that Billy Hamilton steals this time?”