Cueto sensational in big league debut
Reds righty loses perfect game in sixth amid 10-strikeout gem
CINCINNATI -- Not even Mother Nature could mess with Johnny Cueto.Steady rain pelted away at Great American Ball Park on Thursday afternoon, but not enough to stop a game. The Diamondbacks kept swinging away, but they could not stop Cueto, either. As far as Major League debuts go, they rarely get more sensational. The 22-year-old Cueto pitched seven innings -- retiring the first 15 batters he faced -- and struck out 10 in the Reds' 3-2 win over the Diamondbacks. It gave Cincinnati two out of three in the season's first series. "Boy, that is some debut there," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "The way he threw the ball today has no age to it." No Major League pitcher had debuted with at least five perfect innings since Seattle's Ken Cloude in 1997. With his fastball often reaching 96 mph, Cueto (1-0) pumped fastballs inside and then got nastier with a low-90s slider and high-80s changeup. Armed with an early 3-0 lead, the right-hander retired eight of his first 15 batters with strikeouts. Cueto was off and running after he struck out the game's first batter, Chris Young, swinging on a 96 mph fastball. "I was very confident," Cueto said through interpreter and mentor Mario Soto. "I was thinking of throwing seven shutout innings. That's what I had in mind." He almost got there. Arizona finally broke up the perfect game in the sixth inning with Justin Upton's leadoff home run into the left-field seats. It was the D-backs' only hit of the game. The home run didn't seem to faze Cueto, however -- he retired his final six batters. To finish the sixth, he got pinch-hitter Jeff Salazar to whiff on an 88 mph changeup, and Young was frozen on a 94 mph fastball for strike three. "I went back and started the same way I was throwing before," Cueto said. "I knew I was throwing a no-hitter, but it went away. I just went back, and I didn't want to give up any more runs. I worked harder." In a two-out rally in the bottom of the first, the Reds took a 2-0 lead on D-backs starter Doug Davis. Ken Griffey Jr. started the rally with a blooped ground-rule double near the line in short left field. Brandon Phillips' RBI double into the left-field corner scored Griffey. After Davis (0-1) issued back-to-back walks, second baseman Orlando Hudson booted Scott Hatteberg's routine ground ball, which would have been the final out. Phillips scored on the error. With two outs in the second, Reds shortstop Jeff Keppinger made it a three-run game with a home run into the left-field seats. Defense played a part in keeping Arizona down. In the fourth, left fielder Adam Dunn made a nice catch on Hudson's fly ball for the third out before he crashed into the fence. Cueto waited on the field to gratefully high-five Dunn, who also made a nice catch on Mark Reynolds' low liner in the fifth. Other than that, Cueto had taken over the game. Cueto threw 92 pitches overall in seven innings, including an astounding 68 for strikes. There were only a handful of two-ball counts, and he never reached three balls against any batter. Since he never had anyone on base, Cueto never had to work from the stretch. "The fact he had no walks, that was most impressive," Baker said. "I'm excited to hear the guys on the bench talking. They're saying they haven't seen this in a long time. I don't think they've ever seen it." No Reds player has seen it, at least -- this century or last. Cueto's 10 Ks was the most during a Cincinnati debut since that kind of record started being kept in 1900. Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka was the last pitcher to record 10 strikeouts in his Major League debut, which he did last season. "He throws everything hard -- his changeup drops, too," said Arizona left fielder Eric Byrnes, who struck out three times, twice against Cueto. "We didn't count on him throwing so many strikes. For the most part, he threw good strikes -- you know, strikes on the corner. He made it difficult." A native of San Pedro de Macoris, Cueto became a product of the Reds' Dominican academy after he signed in 2004. At this time last year, he was pitching for Class A Sarasota but reached Triple-A for four games. Did Baker have any words of advice for Cueto before the game got under way? "I just told him, 'Con calma y confidencia,'" Baker said. "It means 'Confidence and be calm.' And he was." "Seeing his face, you can tell he's not worried about nothing," said closer Francisco Cordero, a fellow Dominican who has taken Cueto under his wing. The game got tense, though, for Cincinnati after Cueto departed. Reliever David Weathers walked the bases loaded with one out in the eighth. Mike Lincoln, in his first big league appearance since May 3, 2004, after undergoing two Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgeries, put out the fire. He got pinch-hitter Alex Romero to hit a sacrifice fly and struck out Young. Cordero retired all three of his batters in the ninth for his first save as a member of the Reds before the handful of the 11,987 fans that braved the inclement conditions. "Cueto was so good today that people didn't notice it," Cordero said. "Not even myself. I just wanted to get my job done so he could get the win. When you pitch like that, you deserve to get a win, especially in a big league debut with that weather."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.