Cueto pitches like vintage self in first start off IL

July 22nd, 2023

MIAMI -- During the Marlins’ season-long eight-game skid, the club has looked for someone to stop the bleeding. For six-plus innings of Saturday afternoon’s 4-3 loss to the Rockies at loanDepot park, veteran right-hander was the guy.

The 37-year-old Cueto turned back the clock and struck out eight batters -- his most since 2020 -- but JT Chargois surrendered a game-tying three-run homer in the seventh and Tanner Scott permitted the go-ahead seeing-eye RBI single in the ninth, as Miami remains the only winless club in the second half.

“I think there's a lot of people that were unsure out there, and in this game, you either prove people right or you prove people wrong,” manager Skip Schumaker said of Cueto. “He did a really good job today, and he did enough to win the game.”

Cueto made the most of his return to the rotation for the first time since his club debut on April 3, permitting just two hits, one walk and one hit batter. An efficient Cueto, who missed substantial time with right biceps tendinitis and a right ankle sprain, threw 12 or fewer pitches in all but one frame. That came in the fourth, when he negated a nine-pitch walk and a hit batter by starting an inning-ending 1-4-3 double play.

A shimmying Cueto messed with the timing of the Rockies hitters as he has done throughout his 16-year career, either quick pitching them or working the timer to his advantage. He used all quadrants of the zone, tallying six strikeouts on the elevated four-seamer and one apiece on a changeup and cutter well below the zone. His average fastball velocity was 92.9 mph -- 1.5 mph faster than his season average.

"He's definitely got a presence out there,” Rockies right fielder Nolan Jones said. “He threw a lot of really good pitches. My first at-bat he got me on a changeup -- one of the better changes I've seen. In my second at-bat, he got me out on a high heater. He mixes the timing, he mixes locations. He's very unpredictable, and it's definitely not a comfortable at-bat. So he does a really good job out there, and his presence is definitely felt."

Schumaker allowed Cueto to go back out for the seventh, then pulled him once Ryan McMahon led off with a single. Elias Díaz singled and Jones rocketed a game-tying three-run homer off Chargois to hand Cueto the no-decision. Since Cueto hadn’t gone that deep in an outing all year, pulling the righty was an easy decision for Schumaker.

Cueto is the same pitcher who gave up four runs, including two homers, in just one inning in his season debut before exiting due to the arm issue. That had followed a disjointed Spring Training while participating in the World Baseball Classic for the Dominican Republic. He then posted a 9.11 ERA and permitted a .353 average in six rehab starts between Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Jacksonville after recovering from the ankle sprain. When his assignment was done, the Marlins elected to put him in the bullpen rather than back in the rotation to begin the second half. After Cueto pitched three scoreless innings of relief on Sunday against the Orioles, Miami had seen enough to insert him back into a starting role.

“He was good,” Marlins catcher Jacob Stallings said. “Now that he's healthy, I think that's kind of what we were hoping that we would get at the beginning of the year. We're glad he's healthy. It's exactly the kind of outing we needed. But obviously, we couldn't take advantage, but he was great.”

Miami inked Cueto, a two-time All-Star and 2015 World Series champion with the Royals, to a one-year, $8.5 million free-agent deal in January in the hopes he could put together outings like Saturday’s and eat up innings for a younger starting staff.

Since the All-Star break ended (6.83 ERA), the Marlins’ rotation has tried to rediscover its first-half form (4.11 ERA). Ace Sandy Alcantara continues to be burnt by the big innings, lefties Braxton Garrett and Jesús Luzardo haven’t found their groove, righty Edward Cabrera just returned from the injured list and rookie Eury Pérez is at Double-A Pensacola having his workload monitored.

“Since I got here, I've been feeling great,” Cueto said. “I know the injury was something that kind of paused everything there, but I'm feeling great and looking forward. There's plenty of baseball games left. I've got to be able to help the team.”