On baseball: Reds’ pitcher Johnny Cueto is off to a start for the ages


Cincinnati Reds starter Johnny Cueto leads the major leagues with a 1.25 ERA entering his scheduled start Tuesday against the Nationals. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Almost as soon as Johnny Cueto pulled the shirt from his back and began to change from his street clothes to his baseball uniform Sunday morning in Philadelphia, the call came across the visitors’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park.

“How many months?” one Cincinnati Red yelled.

“Months?” responded a shirtless Cueto, crinkling his brow in confusion.

“Yeah, months. How many months for your baby?” came the response.

Cueto’s face brightened, and he smiled. Then he puffed out his belly and rubbed it, laughing.

A pregnant pitcher? Fine. Call him whatever at this point. But when he climbs the mound Tuesday night at Nationals Park — his braided hair pulled back in a ponytail that must weigh 10 pounds, his 5-foot-11, 215-pound frame contorted in a pretzel of a windup — he must be acknowledged as nothing other than the game’s best pitcher over nearly the first two months of the season.

“This is the best I’ve ever been throwing,” Cueto said Monday afternoon through a translator. “I just pray to God that it keeps happening for me this way.”

A standard response. Look at his ridiculous numbers, and play them down. “A guy gets off to a start like this,” Reds reliever Sam LeCure said, “and you kind of don’t want to start talking about it.”

So, hush and all that, but Cueto’s 10th start of the season — this one against the Nationals — will be a chance not just to build on a fine stretch, but to extend history. Yes, he entered play Monday leading the National League in ERA (1.25), walks and hits per innings pitched (0.708), innings pitched (72.0) and strikeouts (76). Someone has to lead all those categories.

But what Cueto is doing goes beyond that. In his second and third starts of the year, he pitched seven innings, giving up five hits and two earned runs each time. Those are his worst outings of the season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time a major league pitcher began a season with nine straight starts in which he went at least seven innings and gave up no more than two earned runs was — drumroll — 1909, when the renowned Harry Krause did it 10 straight times for the Philadelphia Athletics.

Keep going. No one since 1900 has started the year with nine straight starts allowing no more than five hits in any of them. In his past six starts, Cueto has thrown three complete games, including two shutouts. On his “off” nights, he went eight innings. Opposing hitters have managed a .135 average and — get out your microscopes — a .249 slugging percentage against him.

“I mean, come on,” catcher Brayan Pena said.

How is this happening? For one, he’s healthy after a 2013 season in which he was limited to 11 starts by a variety of frustrating injuries. “That happens in baseball,” Cueto said. “You can’t control that.”

But on a larger level, how can Cueto survive, much less excel? Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Adam Wainwright, Yu Darvish — the best right-handed starters in the game — all look the part. Tall, broad-shouldered, long-legged. Cueto doesn’t. Yeah, there’s his hair, upon which his hat seems to balance, a not-so-stiff breeze away from tumbling to the turf. But he also goes all Luis Tiant in his windup, rotating back away from the plate, then unpacking himself as he comes to the plate. From the stretch, his hands rest just above his belly, hidden under a baggy uniform.

“He’s an Olympic baseball player,” Reds Manager Bryan Price said. “He might not be an Olympic swimmer or leading in the luge or something, but he’s an Olympic baseball player.”

Appearances, too, are window dressing for the essential parts of Cueto’s start: his sneaky-smart preparation and competitiveness, and his diverse and precise arsenal.

“You’ll see him pitch out here tomorrow,” Pena said, “and the next day at 1 o’clock, he’ll be the one running up and down the stairs in the stadium.”

Pena spent last year as the backup catcher in Detroit, where he caught former AL MVP Verlander, Scherzer as he won the Cy Young award and Anibal Sanchez as he posted the best ERA in the league. There is a thread.

“These guys, they’re not just trusting their talent,” Pena said. “They’re going after their preparation, after every aspect. They dig in. They dig in deep.”

Cueto said he has learned how to study from experience. He has also whittled down his repertoire, relying mostly on his sinking fastball, his cutter and a change-up. Each of those pitches — and the occasional slider and even more occasional curveball — can be deceiving.

“They’re balls — until they’re strikes,” LeCure said. “The hitters, they feel like their eyes are telling them they’re balls but they end up being strikes right on the corner.”

And the preparation has allowed Cueto to figure out which corner to seek, and when. “Johnny sees where the outs are,” Price said. So watch closely Tuesday night. Cueto will learn, after a pitch or two to a specific hitter, what to throw, and when.

“The really good ones know, by an approach or a swing or a take, they know where they have to be — how much on the outside part of the plate to get that rollover, or how elevated when they go inside,” Price said.

Cueto, of course, isn’t infallible. The last time America saw him before this season was alone on a mound in Pittsburgh, where a black-clad crowd serenaded him with his name, mocking him into a jumble of nerves as the Reds lost a wild-card playoff game to the Pirates. “He’s been one of my favorite pitchers to watch because he competes his [rear] off,” LeCure said. But did that night in the playoffs — when the season ended — inform his start to 2014?

“You don’t carry those things,” Cueto said. “What happened, happened. This is 2014.”

At this moment, in 2014, Johnny Cueto is the best pitcher in baseball. Tuesday night will merely determine whether history is sustained for another five days, whether a tiny ERA can shrink further, and whether more people will start to notice this unorthodox package delivering decidedly uncommon results.

Johnny on the spot, johnny hitting his spots

Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto, who will start tonight against the Nationals, has a modest 4-2 record, but there has been nothing else modest about the way he has begun this season. After nine outings — all quality starts — Cueto is at or near the top of the majors in many categories. But not run support — his average of 3.0 tied for 86th in MLB, which helps explain his record.

earned run avg.

1.25

1st in majors

innings pitched

72

1st in majors

complete games

3

1st in majors

hits per 9 inn.

4.1

1st in majors

walks + hits per inn.

0.71

1st in majors

opp. batting avg.

.135

1st in majors

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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