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Feeling 'normal,' Cueto eager to start Wild Card Game

Following three DL stints in '13, Reds right-hander poised to lead club to NLDS

CINCINNATI -- About a month ago, while he was still on the disabled list for the third time, Johnny Cueto's postseason roster status was iffy. A few weeks ago, there were thoughts that Cueto might be able to help the team in a bullpen role.

Fast forward to the present and now Cueto finds himself starting the all-important National League Wild Card Game against the Pirates at 8:07 p.m. ET on Tuesday at PNC Park and on TBS. -- or perhaps a less awkward way of getting all that info in there.

"It's a really meaningful game for me," Cueto said via interpreter Tomas Vera. "This is the most important game of the season. All I have to do is keep doing my job. Baseball is still the same. I hope to do what I have to do."

A strained right lat muscle has almost felt like a thorn in the side of Cueto and the Reds most of the season. His third DL stint for the injury caused him to miss 2 1/2 months before he returned earlier this month.

Cueto's chance to pitch on Tuesday is somewhat a twist of fate. He was originally slated to start Sunday's regular-season finale against Pittsburgh, but the game became inconsequential when the Pirates locked up Wild Card home-field advantage with Saturday's 8-3 win. Mat Latos, who was thought to be the Tuesday starter, also informed the team he had a sore arm.

"I thought, 'Why are they going to use me on Sunday? This game isn't going to have any value for us.' I waited to see what happened," Cueto said. "Then the pitching coach [Bryan Price] called me in after the game and when he told me I was going to be the starter for Tuesday, I really got happy. It was very exciting for me."

Reds general manager Walt Jocketty's first season with the club coincided with Cueto's rookie year. A 22-year-old at the time, Cueto has since matured from the raw talent who had only four Triple-A starts to a two-time Opening Day starter and dependable ace.

In 2012, Cueto was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA to lead Cincinnati to a NL Central title.

"I'll tell you, it's a big break for us," Jocketty said of Cueto taking the ball Tuesday. "I think he's the best guy to have pitching tomorrow. He's our best big-game pitcher. Not to take anything away from Mat, but Johnny is an animal. He'll go out there and give it his best."

Cueto, now 28, is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against the Pirates, including 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA in 13 starts at PNC Park. He will be opposed by lefty Francisco Liriano, who is 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 11 home starts this season.

"They have a great team," Cueto said. "They have really good players so I'm going to have to do my job as well."

It will mark only the third time in postseason history that both teams' starting pitchers hail from the Dominican Republic. It happened in 1999 and 2004, when Bartolo Colon and Pedro Martinez clashed both times.

"I want to tell my people in the Dominican Republic to follow this game," Cueto said. "There are two Dominicans on the mound. I want to give advice to all the youth in the Dominican that you have to work hard and to continue working hard to do things like this."

Cueto's recent injury woes trace back to the previous time he pitched in a postseason game, last October at San Francisco. In Game 1 of the NL Division Series, the right-hander strained his right oblique muscle and was forced to exit after only eight pitches. Cincinnati overcame the injury in that game to win, but lost Cueto for the series and was eliminated by the Giants in five games.

Now Cueto, who was 5-2 with a 2.82 ERA in 11 regular-season starts, gets another shot to rewrite his postseason fortunes.

"What happened to me in San Francisco, I was excited," Cueto said. "I was so emotional for the game and I think I overdid it too much. I really don't know what happened that day or how I got to that point."

Considered unrelated to the oblique injury, Cueto first strained his lat after an April 13 start at Pittsburgh and missed a month. He made three starts after his return, including eight scoreless innings with one hit at PNC Park on May 31, but was back on the DL from June 5-15.

On June 28, Cueto lasted only one inning in his start at Texas and the move was made to shut him down until there was no doubt he was completely healed. A throwing program did not begin until late August.

"I hoped when I got back we'd have a couple of more games to go," Cueto said. "I hoped to be helpful for the team and I'm happy that they're counting on me now."

There were a couple of times that Reds manager Dusty Baker didn't think he'd be able to use Cueto again this season, much less in the biggest game of the year.

"You just don't know how the body's going to heal," Baker said. "I'm just glad that he's back. … This guy, he's one of the best competitors I've ever had. And like that old cliche, you can never have enough pitching."

Cueto re-entered the scene upon the exit of his rotation replacement, rookie lefty Tony Cingrani, because of back spasms. The Reds decided to give Cueto a start at Houston on Sept. 16, and he threw five scoreless innings and 82 pitches for a win without any health issues.

On Sept. 23, Cueto upped his pitch count to 99 against a tougher lineup in the Mets and allowed two runs (one earned) and three hits over seven innings for a no-decision.

That was all the Reds needed to see to give them confidence that Cueto could handle what's next -- a postseason start.

"He loves that pressure. I'm anxious to see what he can do tomorrow," Jocketty said.

According to Cueto, he will feel no different when it's time to take the mound.

"I feel normal," Cueto said. "I feel back to like I've been pitching the whole year like my career has been."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.
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