SAN FRANCISCO -- Johnny Cueto came up with a few reasons, seemingly trivial, for his wild start Thursday night.
He was feeling too strong, he said -- not used to the cooler Bay Area weather after throwing in the brutal summer heat. And the switch from the flatter bullpen mound to the one on the diamond in AT&T Park forced Cueto to adjust his landing on the fly during a first inning that saw him walk two batters and throw far more balls than strikes.
But as the Reds opened a four-game series with the Giants, what really mattered was how well Cueto adjusted and how unstoppable he was from that point on. The right-hander struck out a season-high eight batters, gave up only four hits and didn't allow another walk in seven shutout innings in leading Cincinnati to a 3-0 victory.
"He's been lights-out this year. ... We just haven't been giving him many runs lately, but we did a better job today," second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "Johnny Cueto just keeps on doing what he's doing. He's becoming one of the best pitchers in the league. He really learned a lot from when he was younger, even though he's still young. As long as he keeps on doing that and we keep on picking him up and the offense keeps doing our job, I think he'll be OK."
Heading into this series, much was made of the former's potent offense and the latter's powerful pitching. But the Reds ended up having the dominant starter and spotless relief, and their offense did plenty to secure the win, leaving nine runners on base but capitalizing on enough other opportunities.
As shaky as Cueto pitched in the first, he was equally as dominant throughout the rest of the game. As Reds manager Dusty Baker predicted beforehand, the game was a low-scoring contest won by whichever club got the best pitching and timely hitting. Fortunately for Baker, Cincinnati had both in the series opener, scoring one run early, two more late and letting Cueto take care of the rest.
"He's getting better every time out. He's looking good, throwing strikes," Baker said. "He started off a little slow, but he finished strong. I think he was throwing the ball better at the end than he was at the beginning."
While Cueto had all his pitches working well, it also worked to his advantage that he was facing a Giants lineup that's been among the worst in the National League. San Francisco had scored 15 runs over its previous six games, and Cueto made sure that number stayed put after seven.
"He threw well. Believe me, I'm not taking anything away from him," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "But it's getting to be a daily thing out there."
Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner managed to shut the Reds down most of the way, striking out seven and walking none in seven innings.
Bumgarner punched out Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to start off the fourth, but Scott Rolen smacked a double to left field and scored on Jonny Gomes' single to center while playing first game in nearly a week, as a viral infection in his throat kept him off the field.
Cincinnati put up another run in the eighth, when Votto lined a two-out double to right field and eventually scored on a passed ball. Phillips connected for an RBI single in the ninth. Nick Masset pitched a clean eighth and Francisco Cordero came on to lock up his 12th save.
The Giants had plenty of chances, with Miguel Tejada reaching third base twice -- including once with only one out on the board. But on both occasions, Cueto made the pitches he needed to force outs and escape unscathed. With the win -- his first game without allowing an earned run since his first two starts of the season on May 8 and May 14 -- Cueto saw his record jump to 3-2 and his ERA continue to descend to 1.93.
"Tejada kind of gave him the blues today. Other than that, though, he threw an outstanding ballgame," Baker said. "He got out of trouble twice with a runner on third. That's big when you can do that and get all the strikeouts. He's turning into that kind of a pitcher."
The win to open up the West Coast road trip was also a welcome sign, given the Reds' 2-8 record on their last stint away from Cincinnati and the up-and-down play that has kept them hovering around .500 for much of the season. While the chilly Northern California breeze may have played a part in Cueto's erratic first inning, Baker has reason to hope it also brings about something better for the Reds.
"We've been up and down, treading water for about a month now," Baker said. "If you keep treading water, sooner or later you're going to start swimming. Hopefully we can have an outstanding road trip."
Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.