CINCINNATI -- At the beginning of the season, pitching Johnny Cueto in an elimination game such as Tuesday's National League Wild Card Game would have been a no-brainer. But after three trips to the disabled list for Cueto this year, Reds manager Dusty Baker had penciled in right-hander Mat Latos to face the Pirates.
With Latos battling arm soreness and Sunday's game now inconsequential, Baker announced after Saturday's 8-3 that it will in fact be Cueto taking the mound at PNC Park on Tuesday. Although it might seem like a risk to rely on a pitcher who's made just two starts since spending three months on the DL to some, the Reds are not among that crowd.
"There's no question about it -- injury or not -- Johnny is still our ace," first baseman Joey Votto said. "I know that Mat Latos, he's definitely put a lot of pressure on the pitching staff, challenging them through his performance and certainly set a really high standard. But Johnny, he was hurt a good percentage of the year and probably should have been an All-Star last year and received Cy Young votes. They just don't hand those things out. Johnny looks like the same Johnny, and that's why I think I call him our ace."
In his two starts since returning, Cueto has been solid. On Sept. 16, he tossed five shutout innings, allowing just five hits and a walk against the Astros in his first outing since a strained right lat forced him to leave a June 28 start after one inning.
After throwing 82 pitches against Houston, Cueto bumped that number up to 99 on Monday, when he held the Mets to one earned run on three hits and three walks in seven innings.
Unfortunately, the change was as much about Latos as it was about Cueto. Baker revealed Saturday that Latos' arm was "barking" and replacing him on Tuesday was a necessity, not a choice.
"We're hoping with those couple of extra days off, that he'll be ready for Atlanta," Baker said of Latos and the prospect of him pitching in a potential NL Division Series against the Braves. "We're kind of banged up now. Bronson [Arroyo's] back was a little sore today. Homer [Bailey's] leg was sore yesterday."
Unlike some of his fellow starters, all indications are that Cueto is at, or at least near, full strength.
Tuesday will mark Cueto's third outing against the Pirates in 2013. He combined to give up one run and three hits in the first two, including a one-hit, eight-inning shutout on May 31. However, Cueto went just 4 1/3 innings against the Pirates on April 13 and hit the DL after each of those starts, both of which were in Pittsburgh.
For his career, Cueto is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 starts against the Pirates. Most of that success has come in 13 starts in Pittsburgh, where he's gone 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA.
Cueto will be up against Francisco Liriano, who also appears to enjoy pitching at PNC Park, going 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 11 home starts in 2013.
When healthy, Cueto has for the most part looked like himself this season. In 11 starts, he's gone 5-2 with a 2.82 ERA. With that and the way the 27-year-old right-hander has returned from his most recent setback, Votto isn't the only one in the Reds clubhouse confident in Cueto's ability to give the team a chance on Tuesday.
"Cueto is one of the best pitchers in this game," second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "I'm looking forward to Cueto. I believe in Cueto -- we all do. Hopefully he can bring his A-game and be the Cueto we all know. If you're going to go down, you want to go down with your ace."
Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com.