When Johnny Cueto is “on,” the opposition is better off staying in the dugout opening pumpkin seed packages or playing cribbage or wiping pine tar off batting helmets.
Baseball bats are of little use.
Father’s Day was an “on” day for Cueto, a triumphant return from the disabled list, after he knocked the rust off in the first inning.
Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez hit a two-out bases-empty home run in the first inning, followed by a Jonathan Lucro double, but the Brewers did little more and the Cincinnati Reds posted a 5-1 victory.
Cueto went six solid innings, giving up one run and five hits while walking none and striking out three during an 88-pitch afternoon.
“The first inning I had a lot of thoughts in my mind — too much thinking,” said Cueto through translator Tomas Vera. “I was trying to be perfect, making sure nothing happen.”
After the wobbly first inning, utility infielder Cesar Izturis was waiting for Cueto and said, “You’re good. Do what you have to do. If it’s broken again, it’s broken and we’ll fix it again.”
It wasn’t broken. Not even cracked.
“I came back with a different mentality after that and did what you saw,” said Cueto. “From that point, everything went well.”
After Gomez’s first-inning home run, the Reds tied it in the second inning without a hit — but Cueto put the stamp on it with a closed-eyes perfect suicide squeeze bunt.
Xavier Paul walked, took second on an error, moved to third on a fielder’s choice and scored on Cueto’s perfectly dropped suicide squeeze bunt.
“It was a good squeeze play, but I thought the slider was going to hit me, so I actually closed my eyes and it came out OK,” he said.
Cueto had orders not to swing the bat, not to risk re-injury, so the bunt was the only option.
“We’re still scratching for runs (only nine hits Sunday),” said manager Dusty Baker. “I’m confident with Johnny doing anything. But there was a threat of rain and we wanted to get the lead before the rain (that never came). And Johnny wasn’t supposed to hit, hadn’t hit since he hurt himself. The suicide squeeze came as a result of a combination of things.”
Of Cueto pitching, a no-walk effort, Baker said, “Cueto can make the big pitch when he needs it. He’ll fall behind then make a big pitch. This guy has really learned how to pitch. I only had one worry about Johnny Cueto and that was if his arm was OK.”
The Reds scored two in the fourth, punctuated by Jay Bruce’s 12th home run, a 469-foot rip-roarer that was 15 feet farther than the one he hit on the last homestand against Colorado on which he said, “I can’t hit one to right field any farther.”
Said Bruce with a grin, “Well, the other one was to right field and this one was to right-center. Different animal.”
Bruce preferred talking about Cueto and said, “Everyone is holding their breath that he comes out of the game feeling good and it looks as if he did, had his stuff, and looked like the Johnny Cueto that we all know and love.”
The final two runs came in the sixth when Donald Lutz batted for Cueto with runners on second and third and pumped a single up the middle to make it 5-1.
Lutz, a left-hander, stroked his two-run single off left-hander Mike Gonzalez.
“He stayed off some tough pitches against a veteran left-hander who has been around a while,” said Baker. “Most of the time when a veteran faces a kid he is going to try to trick him. But Big Lutz didn’t go for the tricks.”
The last time Lutz was a hero was Mother’s Day. Now it’s Father’s Day and Lutz said, “Todd Frazier said they should only play me on holidays.
“That was a big confidence boost for me because things have been rough on me lately,” said Lutz. “A veteran pitcher? Doesn’t matter who right now. I want to show them I can handle left-handed pitching.”
After Cueto left, Alfredo Simon gave the punch drunk bullpen a day of rest by pitching the last three innings — no runs, two hits, six strikeouts, the last five in a row.
“He did a great job, saved my bullpen, without a whole bunch of pitches,” said Baker.
After two innings, Baker asked Simon if he could push it to three innings. Simon said, “Yes, I can finish this game.” Then he proved it — he struck out the side.
“All my pitches were working, my breaking ball, my slider — and my two-seamer was working really good,” Simon added. “I just tried to keep the guys in the bullpen fresh for the next few days.”
Of his five straight strikeouts, Simon said, “My breaking ball was working really good today and they were looking for the fastball and I never gave it to them.”
And it was all worth it for the Reds. The Cardinals lost Sunday, lost two of three in Miami, while the Reds took two of three from the Brewers and are 2 ½ games back.
Next assignment: Four games in Great American Ball Park with the Pittsburgh Pirates, a battle for second place.