Johnny Cueto grabbed a piece of bubblegum, pulled his Dayton Dragons hat over his Cincinnati Reds skull cap and went to work on Tuesday — just another night at Fifth Third Field for the Dragon turned Red turned Dragon.
The second rehab start for the injured Reds ace went about as well as hoped. Cueto threw five innings against the West Michigan Whitecaps, as planned, and didn’t allow a run on three hits. He threw 58 pitches, 39 of which were strikes, and struck out four without a walk.
“Thank God, everything went really well,” said Cueto through his interpreter, Dragons pitching coach Tony Fossas. “I worked on all my pitches like I would have in a real game. I’m feeling ready.”
Cueto was efficient enough in his five innings that he threw 23 more pitches in a bullpen session after leaving the game. He left as the pitcher of record with the Dragons leading 1-0 on a home run by Robert Ramirez in the fifth.
Cueto’s Dragons teammates also helped him in the second. The first two batters, Jeff Holm and Lance Durham, reached on singles, but Cueto got out of the jam with a flyout and a double-play groundout.
“Every time I’ve come here, the guys have done a good job,” Cueto said.
Cueto hasn’t pitched for the Reds since April 13. He has been on the disabled list with a strained right lat muscle in his back. He showed no signs of discomfort on the mound Tuesday.
Missing more than a month of the season “has been tough,” Cueto said. “But I knew I was hurt and I was calm about it so I can come back healthy.”
In his absence, Tony Cingrani has gone 2-0 with a 2.89 ERA in five starts, though he’s given up six earned runs in 10 innings in his last two starts and was given an extra day of rest this week because of a sore shoulder.
“He’s doing a good job,” Cueto said, “and he needs to continue doing it because you never know what can happen.”
Cueto threw three innings in his first rehab start Thursday for the Dragons. He gave up one run on four hits with four strikeouts.
After the game, Cueto bought dinner from Outback Steakhouse for his teammates. Cueto was in their shoes seven years ago when he pitched for the Dragons.
“One of the things that impressed all of us is just how much command he has of the zone with all his pitches,” pitcher Joey Housey said, “and how he gets loose with all his pitches and starts off slow until he gets that release point down and builds up.”
Pitcher Robert Stephenson, Housey and Sal Romano talked to Cueto in the clubhouse after Thursday’s start.
“His change-up is filthy,” Stephenson said. “I was watching it and I thought for sure he was going to say he throws a splitter. He was showing us his grip. Turns out, it’s a change-up. I didn’t expect that at all.”