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April 17, 2014

What You Need to Know

Cueto in Control

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto enjoyed a career year in 2012, when he compiled a 2.78 ERA over 217 innings despite pitching half of his games in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league. But the then-26-year-old’s ascent toward stardom was halted by a lat strain that he suffered last April and nursed for a month, only to have it recur twice and limit him to 11 starts.

A fall and winter of rest enabled Cueto to come to spring training at full strength. And if his results through four starts are any indication, he may be better than ever.

Cueto worked seven innings in each of his first three starts of the year, and he held the Cardinals, Mets, and Rays to no more than two runs apiece. On Wednesday afternoon, he turned things up a notch, going the distance and keeping the Pirates off the board entirely.

Clint Hurdle’s lineup cobbled together three hits—a double by Andrew McCutchen and singles by Tony Sanchez and Jordy Mercer—but no Pittsburgh player came within 90 feet of crossing the plate. Meanwhile, Cueto racked up a career-high 12 strikeouts without issuing a walk. It was his best punchout total in a walk-less outing since his major-league debut, which came against the Diamondbacks on April 3, 2008.

Cueto has long relied on a deep arsenal, mixing two types of fastballs with a cutter, a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. He leaned on his secondary pitches as much as ever in yesterday’s gem, using his two- and four-seam heaters a combined 33 times (30.8 percent) in 107 offerings.

The changeup was his bread-and-butter on Wednesday, yielding 12 strikes in 17 tries (all of them swinging, five of them whiffs). Cueto also had excellent command of his two-seam fastball, which enabled him to take advantage of home-plate umpire Quinn Wolcott’s generous inside corner to left-handed batters.

Francisco Liriano, who got the ball for the Pirates, had no such luck with his heater in the early going. He walked Billy Hamilton and then watched the speedy outfielder steal second, move to third on a wild pitch, and score on another one. The Reds tacked on two more runs on a Joey Votto homer in the bottom of the seventh and another in the eighth, but Cueto’s masterpiece rendered them superfluous.

For a Reds club off to a rocky, 6-9 start, Cueto’s three-hitter was, in the words of first-year manager Bryan Price, “a huge boost.” It avenged Cincinnati’s loss to Pittsburgh in last year’s National League Wild Card Game, when Liriano outdueled Cueto, and helped the Reds earn a 2-2 split on the heels of four straight series losses to begin 2014.

Quick Hits from Wednesday
It had been nearly 25 years since a major-league team last tossed a shutout in both ends of a twin bill—until the Yankees, led by Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda, welcomed the Cubs to the Bronx with a couple of blankings on Wednesday.

Tanaka went eight innings in the matinee portion of the doubleheader, permitting only a couple of bunt singles and striking out 10. The right-hander has now collected at least eight strikeouts in each of his first three stateside starts, putting him one shy of the four-start record currently held by Stephen Strasburg.

Pineda chipped in six zeroes in the nightcap, scattering four hits and a walk while striking out three, before giving way to the bullpen. Eighteen innings into his return from shoulder surgery, Pineda now owns a 1.00 ERA and a 15-to-3 K:BB ratio, excellent work for any starter, but particularly for one whose career was up in the air before the season began.

The Yankees’ scoreless day-night sweep was the first completed by any club since the Twins kept the Athletics off the board twice on June 26, 1988. The Cubs, who went a combined 9-for-61 at the plate across the two games, are still winless in the Bronx in franchise history. They suffered a sweep in their most recent visit, an interleague series in 2005, and were broomed away in both of their World Series matchups with the Yankees, in 1932 and 1938.

***

Since at least 1914, only 18 pitchers have struck out 13 batters in a 1-0 defeat. Cliff Lee was the most recent one to do it when he woke up on Wednesday morning, and the most recent when he went to bed last night. The only difference is, he’s now the only pitcher in a century to suffer that cruel fate twice.

Lee allowed 11 hits in his complete-game loss to the Braves but escaped jam after jam with his outstanding command. He needed a career-high 128 pitches to record all 27 outs but had no trouble finding the zone in the late innings. B.J. Upton, the only Brave who drew a walk, did so in the fifth. The top four batters in Fredi Gonzalez’s order accounted for 10 of Lee’s 13 Ks.

Unfortunately for Lee, the Phillies’ bats were stymied by Julio Teheran, who joined Cueto in the three-hitter club but relied much more on his defense than the Reds’ ace. Teheran struck out four without walking a batter. He induced 10 of the other 23 outs on grounders and the remaining 13 through the air.

The 23-year-old Colombian got all the support he needed on a fourth-inning solo shot by Evan Gattis, who went yard twice in the series opener on Monday before sitting out Tuesday’s middle match. Gattis notched three other hits off of Lee last night to become the first player to go 4-for-4 with a big fly in a 1-0 victory since Rogers Hornsby did it way back in 1929.

Lee paid the price for one of his few location mistakes—an 0-2 fastball that came too close to the inside edge. It found Gattis’ down-and-in power alley and made all the difference in Lee’s second straight tough-luck loss to the Braves.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Leonys Martin delivered a walk-off single in the ninth inning of yesterday’s duel between Felix Hernandez and Yu Darvish, but he made an equally important contribution in the sixth, when the latter was still on the mound:

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • After striking out only five batters over his first two starts, Justin Verlander blew away eight Padres last weekend—and collected his first two career hits to boot. The 31-year-old will try to keep up that whiff rate as the Tigers close out a three-game set with the Indians in Detroit. Tribe starter Danny Salazar, meanwhile, will look to work more efficiently after striking out a MLB-record 10 in 3 2/3 innings but coughing up five runs on six hits (two homers) and two walks his last time out (1:08 p.m. ET).

  • Edinson Volquez’s secondary stuff has been virtually untouchable in the early going. Opponents are just 2-for-27 with two singles, a walk, and seven strikeouts in at-bats terminating with the right-hander’s changeup or curve, a key reason why he’s toting a shiny 1.29 ERA after 14 innings. Volquez has also shaved his walk rate from 9.9 percent to 5.6 percent to date, and while his K/9 has tumbled, his strikeouts-per-PA clip has actually ticked up from 18.3 percent to 18.5 percent. All of that is good news, but no amount of shifting is likely to sustain the 30-year-old’s .175 BABIP, and the Brewers will try to deliver the expected regression in support of Yovani Gallardo (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • David Price got off to a rocky start in 2013, when the Rays lost each of his first five assignments and his ERA stood at 5.24 on May 15. The left-hander has has no such trouble shaking off the offseason rust this year, with a 22-to-2 K:BB ratio and 2.91 ERA helping Joe Maddon's club to a 3-0 record in his trips to the bump. Price is set to duel CC Sabathia in the first of four games with the Yankees at Tropicana Field (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • The day’s best duel might take place at U.S. Cellular Field, where left-handers Jon Lester and Chris Sale are due to square off. Despite pitching in the American League, the White Sox’ ace has somehow avoided ever starting a game against the Red Sox; all five of his trips to the bump versus Boston have come out of the bullpen. Through three starts in 2014, the 25-year-old Sale has yet to allow a hit to a left-handed batter. David Ortiz & Co. will put that flawless mark to the test in the series finale (8:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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