CINCINNATI -- On the afternoon of April 28, Rice University head baseball coach Wayne Graham was afforded some free time to catch one of his former players pitching on television. It was Reds rookie left-hander Tony Cingrani facing the Nationals.
Graham would not be disappointed as he watched Cingrani have a buzz-worthy performance -- 11 strikeouts and two hits over six scoreless innings for a 5-2 win. That was the day that Cingrani became the fifth Cincinnati pitcher to record four strikeouts in one inning.
It wasn't just that his former pitcher achieved the feat, but just how Cingrani did it.
"I thought that was really thrilling to see him do that," Graham said by phone last week. "That one inning was one of the most impressive innings I've ever seen thrown in professional baseball. He was in trouble, and it looks like he made up his mind that, 'I belong here and now this is my way to show you I belong up here.'"
Belonging and getting to stay in the Majors could be different things in this case. Whether Cingrani gets to remain looms as a very large question for the Reds. With Johnny Cueto due to have his second Minor League rehab-assignment outing on Tuesday, the ace could return to the rotation soon. Manager Dusty Baker, pitching coach Bryan Price and general manager Walt Jocketty will likely have to chose between keeping Cingrani or fifth starter Mike Leake.
"Whatever they tell me to do, I will do," said Cingrani, who is ranked No. 3 on the Reds' Top 20 Prospects list. "Leake has been here for four years, and I wouldn't be surprised if I go back down."
Leake will make his next start on Wednesday vs. the Marlins, while Cingrani will take the series opener at Philadelphia on Friday. Whatever the decision is, there is no debating that Cingrani helped the club get through what could have been a debilitating absence of Cueto.
"The silver lining is he's gotten extended time here, so the lining is that he's put us in a position to win," Baker said. "What if he had come up and got shelled, and then who are we to turn to then? Who's our next line of defense? Had we lost four out of his five starts or whatever it is, [heck], we'd be seven [games] out, or worse. That's that he's done. He's kept us in games."
At the Major League level, Cingrani has kept Cincinnati in games with primarily one pitch -- a mid-90s mph fastball that every hitter knows is coming. In five starts this season since he was called up from Triple-A Louisville to replace Cueto, Cingrani is 2-0 with a 2.89 ERA, seven walks and 37 strikeouts in 28 innings.
"You can't ask for anything more. This is where you want to play," Cingrani said of his experience thus far.
The zenith of Cingrani's brief tenure was likely that game at Washington. Cingrani struck out leadoff hitter Denard Span, but threw a wild pitch to let Span reach safely. Before long, there were runners on second and third with no outs and then the bases loaded with two outs.
The fourth strikeout of Cingrani's fourth inning was a 96-mph heater that had Adam LaRoche staring at strike three to end the jam. All four strikeouts in the inning came on fastballs.
"When there are guys on second and third and nobody out, I got [ticked] off, so I hit my spots and got the ball to move," Cingrani said.
"The obvious focus and determination were all there," Graham said. "He actually elevated his fastball a couple of miles an hour. He went back to a closer mode to get out of that inning, it seemed like."
Graham, 77, is completing his 22nd season at Rice and his 33rd year as a college head coach. A 2012 College Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, his Owls won the 2005 national championship. Among his former Rice players is slugger Lance Berkman, and during his time before Rice at San Jacinto College, Graham had pitching greats Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte under his watch.
After transferring from South Suburban Junior College in his native Illinois, Cingrani pitched for Graham on the Rice campus in Houston from 2010-11, before he was a third-round pick of the Reds in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.
It was at Rice where Cingrani improved his mechanics to get more from his bread-and-butter pitch -- the fastball. During his junior year, Cingrani was prone to slinging his left arm way behind his back. Graham and the coaching staff told Cingrani to shorten his arm action and delivery. Not only did his command immediately improve, his velocity did likewise, as it jumped from the mid-80s to the low-to-mid-90s.
"I was able to throw my fastball and making sure I was hitting my spots," Cingrani said. "It helped me develop my fastball a little better."
During his senior year, Cingrani became the closer and often worked up to three innings at the back end of a game. He was named the team's Most Valuable Player as he posted a 1.74 ERA with four wins and 12 saves. Cincinnati turned him back to a starter in its Minor League system, and Cingrani made a rapid ascent up the ladder and reached the big leagues as a September callup last year.
According to Fangraphs, Cingrani is third among Major League pitchers with at least 20 innings in throwing his fastball 82.4 percent of the time. Last year's National League leader among all qualified pitchers in fastball percentage was D-backs lefty Wade Miley, who threw it 72.2 percent of the time.
"He has even better command of it now than when he was here," Graham said. "He didn't walk people here, but he's able to move it to both sides of the plate and down. The one game I saw most of, he was really moving the ball around the strike zone. And he does hide the ball real well to where it explodes on the hitter. His 94 [mph] is really a 97, because he hides the ball so well."
On Friday vs. the Brewers, Cingrani had his shortest start, lasting only four innings and allowing two runs on back-to-back homers by Jean Segura and Ryan Braun in the fourth. His pitch count was elevated to 85 in that short outing.
Cingrani's current boss, Baker, wouldn't mind seeing the pitcher diversify his repertoire a little more -- especially the second and third time through a batting order.
"The second time through and third time through is even tougher, because they know the action on your ball and they can bring the ball here or in or out or whatever it is," Baker said. "He's going to have to come up with a secondary pitch, especially against a team like that team. They can hit that fastball. They ain't hitting .300 on breaking balls. He's on the way. I'm just glad he's had the success that he's had so far."
Cingrani also has a changeup and a slider. Like Baker, Graham agrees that he would also like to see him develop those pitches more.
"The more his breaking stuff evolves, the better he'll be," Graham said. "I think he'll evolve a good slider. It's decent now, but if it gets good, he could be another Steve Carlton -- you never know. That slider became Steve's great pitch. Tony will need to make that more of a go-to pitch than it is right now."
Cingrani felt he had enough to compete well at big league level and could expand his bag of tricks as needed.
"If something is not working, I just compete," Cingrani said. "I go out there, see what I have, and if it's not working, I try to get them out however I can get them out."
That has mostly worked for Cingrani so far, but will it stay that way? That's what the Reds will have to figure out while making a tough choice.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.