Johnny Cueto's unspectacular, but solid win in return comes just in time for the Reds

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Johnny Cueto went five innings, allowing three runs on three hits and four walks while striking out eight. (Seth Wenig/AP)

(Seth Wenig/AP)

NEW YORK -- Amidst talk of changing his windup, it was the same old Johnny Cueto who returned to the mound against the New York Mets on Monday night -- and that’s a good thing for the Cincinnati Reds, so long as he stays healthy.

Cueto, Cincinnati’s ace who missed six starts with a strained back muscle, is known for his cork-screw windup in which he rotates back toward second base before delivering a pitch. He indicated to reporters recently he might change his mechanics in the future to minimize his twisting motion and help prevent injury after dealing with oblique soreness both in last year’s playoffs and earlier this season.

That didn’t happen Monday, at least not in any perceptible fashion. So the results were not drastically different either, as Cueto earned the victory in the Reds' 4-3 win. It was 3-3 in the sixth inning until Jay Bruce broke the tie with a solo home run.

Cueto went five innings, allowed three runs, struck out eight and walked four on 90 pitches. He labored early, needing 28 pitches to get out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning and 27 pitches to get through the third inning. That third inning slog included his lone blemish, when Marlon Byrd hit a three-run homer on a hanging slider. But he retired the side in order in both the fourth and fifth innings, with four strikeouts.

“He struggled early,” manager Dusty Baker said. “It looked like he was feeling his way in the strike zone. He wasn’t really letting it go ... He came back and pitched well after [Byrd’s homer].”

Cueto acknowledged he was overthinking things early. His average fastball velocity was right around the 93-mph mark it was before his injury, and most importantly, he emerged unscathed in his return.

“I feel great,” Cueto said through an interpreter. “I feel the same as when the season was starting. I feel brand new.”

His return comes at the right time for the Reds, who came into play Monday tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for second place in the NL Central. Both clubs are 2 1/2 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, who are reeling from their own rotation injuries -- losing Chris Carpenter before the season, Jake Westbrook two weeks ago and now Jaime Garcia as well.

At the end of the month, Cincinnati begins a three-week period in which 10 of its 20 games are against its two fellow division contenders. Cueto only made two rehab starts in Single-A ball for a total of eight innings before returning to the big leagues Monday, but he’ll have a second start before the Reds enter that intra-divisional stretch.

Pitching prospect Tony Cingrani did an admirable job as his replacement, going 2-0 with a 3.27 ERA in six starts, but Cueto is one of the game’s most underappreciated stars. A “top-of-the-food-chain pitcher,” as Baker put it. He’s right: Cueto isn’t just the Reds’ No. 1, he’s one of the best starters in the majors.

The 27-year-old righthander entered the night 29-14 with a 2.58 ERA over 60 starts since the start of 2011. The ERA is second-best in the majors during that time, trailing only the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and ranking a hair better than the Tigers’ Justin Verlander. Those aren’t adjusted ERAs either, and what’s most impressive is Cueto calls the bandbox of Great American Ballpark his home, as opposed to those other two stars who pitch in much bigger ballparks.

“He’s our anchor,” Bruce said.

It was a relatively new experience for the Reds’ rotation not to be at full strength after a remarkable run in 2012. Perhaps no statistic was more indicative in explaining the Reds’ success last year than the Opening Day rotation making 161 of 162 starts, only failing to take the ball in the second game of an August doubleheader.