Brayan Pena took smiling offense at the suggestion.
“He’s not chubby, I’m chubby,” said the Cincinnati Reds’ 5-foot-9, 228-pound veteran catcher. “He wears lots of t-shirts. He works really hard to maintain his physique. And he’s pretty strong. He’ll fool you. He just wears lots of t-shirts.”
Pena was talking about Johnny Cueto, the Reds’ starting pitcher with the long-braided hair, the distinctive back-to-the-batter windup and the same compact build as his.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and right now the Cincinnati Reds like everything they see in Cueto.
The 28-year-old right-hander not only did something Thursday that hasn’t been done in the majors for 105 years, but — if you listen to Pena, teammate Zack Cozart and even Cueto himself — he now has established himself as the best pitcher in the big leagues.
Cueto threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout to stymie the San Diego Padres 5-0 in the first game of a rain-necessitated doubleheader at Great American Ball Park.
He now has started nine games this season, gone at least seven innings in each of those outings and given up no more than two runs in any. The last time a pitcher did that was 1909 when the Philadelphia Athletics’ Harry Krause made 10 similar starts.
“I did not know that, I didn’t even know that was something there was,” Cueto said through interpreter Tomas Vera. “Now that I know, I thank God that I was the guy who was able to do it after 100 years.”
While he might not be aware of the distant, dusty past, Cueto does know the present.
So does Cozart:
“That guy needs to start getting some national attention. I was watching TV the other day and they were still talking about (Zack) Greinke, (Clayton) Kershaw and (Jose) Fernandez. I was like, ‘Well, what about Johnny C?’ That guy never leaves anything over the plate for them to drive. Since I’ve been in the big leagues, he’s probably pitching better than anybody I’ve seen.”
Asked about that later, Cueto, never one to trumpet his own cause, was refreshingly candid and said yes, he thought he was the best pitcher in the game right now.
“I would say yes, because the numbers talk,” he said. “My numbers are gonna talk for me.”
No one’s numbers are better.
His 1.25 earned-run average is the best in MLB this season. He leads the big leagues in innings (72), strikeouts (76) and walks plus hits per inning (WHIP) at 0.701.
Although the uninitiated might look at his 4-2 record and think otherwise, his two losses came when the bullpen and especially his own offense let him down.
“I’m gonna sound like a broken record, but it’s the truth, Man, he just goes out there and continues to improve every game,” said Pena. “He’s getting better and better. Right now his mindset is just so strong. It’s fun to be behind the plate when he’s pitching. Hopefully, all the position players say the same thing.”
The Reds certainly seemed to feed off Cueto’s magnificence Thursday and he, in turn, said he was buoyed by their suddenly resurgent bats.
The Reds got 11 hits in the first game and, in manager Bryan Price’s mind, may have played their best all-around game of the season.
Cozart, who was in a 0-15 slump with runners in scoring position, got three hits and drove in two runs. But no one had a bigger day than second baseman Brandon Phillips, who hit a three-run home run in the fifth, doubled in the first and in the seventh made a highlight-reel, bare-handed grab on the run of Everth Cabrera’s grounder up the middle to throw out the Padres’ shortstop.
Although it would have been nice to talk to Phillips about his day and get his take on Cueto’s effort, the Reds’ otherwise-joyous second baseman refuses to speak to the media over some perceived slight.
As for the offense’s previous failures when Cueto has pitched, Pena offered an explanation:
“With all due respect, every time he goes out there we know it’s gonna be very low scoring because we know we’re going to face a pretty good pitcher, too.
“Other teams always put their best against our best — the best versus the best, kinda like a heavyweight fight.”
Cueto admitted that when he warmed up Thursday he felt out of sorts:
“I didn’t feel good when I was in the bullpen. I didn’t feel like I always feel. I didn’t feel as strong or as loose. A day like this, when it cools down and gets cold, you don’t feel warm enough at the start. But as the game went on I was able to recoup and do everything I did.”
It was Cueto’s third complete game of the season and his second shutout. He’s not allowed more than five hits in any of his nine outings.
Price marveled that even on a day when his ace didn’t have his best stuff, he never conceded, never backed down against a hitter: “He always attacks.”
“He always says, ‘Hey, Pena, the only thing I really want to do is give us a chance,’ ” the catcher said. “’I just want to keep us in the ballgame. I know the team is pretty good and anything can happen, so I just have to keep us in the game.’
“And he works to make that happen. Not just in the first five innings, his goal is to go deep and give the bullpen a rest. For him to get these complete games and throw 97 and 96 (mph) in the eighth and ninth innings – that’s impressive.
“Right now, he is the best in the game.”