Reds' Cueto is off to super start
Right-hander racking up strikeouts in debut season
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- The National League's newest hero on the mound wears his game pants long, his jersey loose and his hat low, a fraction off center and to the left.
When he throws, his right arm slashes through the air after each delivery and then snaps back up like he is popping an imaginary whip. He's 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, and his name sounds like it came right off the cover of a comic book.
Cincinnati pitching sensation Johnny Cueto wears a red cap, not a red cape, and he isn't from the Planet Krypton, but his super efforts this season have gained national attention and out-of-this-world comparisons. He turned 22 in February.
"That's our little superhero right there," said fellow Reds pitcher Edinson Volquez, 24. "He has a lot of talent. I think one thing that helps him is that he doesn't know a lot about the players he is facing. When you know a lot about the team, there is lot to think about and you can get nervous. He just pitches like he pitches and doesn't worry about it. They don't know him either, so that's good, too."
That could change because Cueto's reputation is growing. In his big league debut, he gave up one hit and one run, striking out 10 hitters in seven innings against Arizona, and followed that start with eight strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings against Milwaukee. He gave up five hits and five runs against Pittsburgh is his latest start, taking the loss and evening his record at 1-1 with a 3.72 ERA.
Cueto throws strikes and has good control for a pitcher of any age. He went 16 innings and struck out 22 batters before he issued his first big league walk. He didn't reach a ball three count until his third start.
"Cueto is aggressive and that's hard to teach young guys," Reds pitching coach Dick Pole said. "He's not afraid to throw the ball inside to either handed hitter. That's something a lot of young guys don't do or know to do."
The approach has worked. Cueto was the 2006 and 2007 Reds Minor League Pitcher of the Year and went 12-9 with a 3.07 ERA in 161 1/3 combined innings with Sarasota, Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Louisville last year.
He is scheduled to start Saturday against the Brewers at Great American Ball Park.
"I've played in a lot of leagues. There is no pressure on my part," Cueto said. "I can pitch and I just concentrate on that. I'm enjoying this. I want to play for 20 years and keep getting better. I know I'm young. I still have a lot of games to play."
He's already come a long way.
Cueto signed with the Reds for $35,000 in 2004 following an early morning, 15-pitch tryout for Reds scout Johnny Armaraz in the Dominican Republic. Armaraz, now with the Braves, was on his way out of the country that day, but made a special trip to see Cueto pitch.
"He tried out at 7:30 in the morning and Johnny liked him," said former Reds pitcher Mario Soto, now director of operations for the Reds in the Dominican Republic. "What I know is Cueto has great stuff and he's a guy that is not afraid to pitch inside. That's one of the keys to big leagues if you want to be successful. That's a big plus when you are throwing 96, 97 mph with a good change and a slider."
In three seasons in the Minor Leagues, Cueto went 14-12 with a 3.28 ERA. He earned a spot in the rotation by dazzling the club during Spring Training. He posted a 2.08 ERA in his first four appearances in Grapefruit League play.
"I told my mom I wanted to play in the big leagues and I made it," Cueto said. "She always pushed me to play the game, always wanted me to go out and work out. Before I signed, she was always telling me to go to the stadium, 'Get up and go play.' 'Go run, go practice.'"
Cueto credits his family in the Dominican Republic and his new Reds family for keeping him grounded. The joke is that Cueto and Volquez are siblings because they spend so much time together. Veteran closer Francisco Cordero is the paternal figure of this Dominican group, always keeping an eye on the two youngsters and making sure they are doing the right thing. Cordero and Volquez were teammates with the Texas Rangers.
"[Cueto] looks young, but when he gets on the mound, it is like he is a veteran. He owns the mound," Cordero said. "He is a good listener. If he stays healthy, he can be a pitcher of the franchise. I tell him to keep working hard. People are always going to say things, but just believe in yourself and dedicate yourself. Don't get a big head."
Big smiles, on the other hand, are common, especially when the jovial Volquez is involved. Volquez and Cueto share an apartment near the ballpark in Cincinnati, and they also roomed together during Spring Training. Last winter, Cueto and Volquez worked out together at the Reds' Dominican baseball academy in Boca Chica, about 25 minutes away from Cueto's home in San Pedro de Macoris.
They say the extra work helped them earn spots in the Reds' rotation.
"I have my car, so I take him places, show him how to dress for trips, talk to the fans and things like that," Volquez said. "He's been playing here for four years, but he didn't know the life of a big leaguer and what to expect. He's smart. He learned quickly. Now, we just laugh all the time. He likes to play around a lot. He's funny. He's always kidding around. He's like my little brother. Cordero is the father. That's the joke."
Having "brother" Edinson around has made life easier for Cueto because he admits he gets homesick at times. Cueto is currently trying to bring his mother to the United States, but can't because of visa issues. She spent two months with him in the Minor Leagues last season. He also longs to see his longtime girlfriend and his infant son and daughter. Cueto, his parents, girlfriend, children and his four siblings all live together in the same house in the Dominican Republic, so not having family around is challenging at times.
"I want [mom] to be here," he said. "I made it to the 40-man [roster], then 25-man and she didn't see it. I'm here, but she is not. I'm going to keep trying to get her here. She can take care of me, cook for me."
In a perfect world, every member of Cueto's family would be with him in the United States. The notion might not be too far-fetched. Cordero's brothers live with him in Cincinnati and his family members, including his young son, visit him from the Dominican Republic often.
"Volquez, we are great friends, good teammates," Cueto said. "I met Cordero here. He's a good person. He watches out for me. He answers everything I ask him about everything."
Cueto's size and fastball have drawn early comparisons to another diminutive Dominican power pitcher, Mets starter Pedro Martinez, but Cueto said it's too early in his career to be mentioned in the same breath as his baseball idol. Cueto wears jersey No. 47, but sported no. 45 in the Minor Leagues in Martinez's honor.
"I don't know Pedro personally, but I can't wait to talk to him," he said. "People see me pitch and they say I can be like him. I'm just starting. I'm not Pedro Martinez."