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10/09/10 11:52 PM ET

Reds need Cueto to be Johnny-on-the-spot

Cincinnati aiming to make historic NLDS comeback

CINCINNATI -- As a young but veteran pitcher, Johnny Cueto has already made a lot of starts (92) in a Major League uniform. None, however, have come at the end of the line. Lose, and everyone goes home.

Cueto's first elimination-game experience comes in Sunday night's Game 3 of the National League Division Series, in which the Phillies will take an insurmountable 2-0 lead into the 8 p.m. ET start at Great American Ball Park.

Insurmountable? Aren't sports exempt from absolutes? Not in this case. Not yet. No NL team has recovered from an 0-2 deficit to win the best-of-five series.

Cueto is up to the challenge of beginning the unprecedented.

"Pitching in the playoffs is the same," he said during Saturday's workout. "It doesn't change anything. It's just that there are more people in the stands and it's more noise in the stands, but nothing changes. The game is the same. You have to pitch the same way."

Cueto's "same" could suffice since the Reds, in need of a miracle to survive, are turning to a pitcher with a minor miracle already under his belt.

That marvel, in fact, occurred the last time he faced the Phillies at home. And for karma fans, it couldn't get better than that.

Note to the Reds' defense that committed four errors on Friday in Game 2, particularly to the infielders: Get your sleep, and your gloves oiled.

In hurling one of the Reds' two regular-season victories over Philadelphia on June 28, Cueto was in total command for eight innings -- without registering a single strikeout.

That 7-3 victory, in which he allowed a run and six hits, is one of only two of Cueto's 92 career starts without a strikeout. The first had come four weeks earlier, but in an off-note game in which the Cardinals were banging him around for 10 hits and eight runs in five innings.

"I'm going to be watching [on video] the times I've been throwing to [the Phillies]," Cueto said, "and try to keep the ball down to get the most outs I can."

The Reds are expecting, and counting on, just that.

"We hope Johnny gives us a good outing on Sunday," said Bronson Arroyo, who started and pitched well in Game 2, before things fell apart. "You win one, run your next guy out there and you hope you win another one. All you can do is look to the next day."

Cueto's muted success in June against the Phillies was remarkable for an avowed strikeout pitcher who had frequently invited trouble by overthrowing. It is the best evidence yet on record about his maturation as a pitcher, a process that involves confidently throwing more to contact.

In that game, Cueto elicited 13 outs on grounders and the 11 others through the air.

Having that type of self-control again could be vital to the 24-year-old right-hander as he takes on the responsibility of the elimination game.

Cueto stayed on his game even the second time he faced the Phillies, amid the forgettable pre-All-Star break sweep to them. On July 8, he allowed four hits and one earned run in seven innings -- while picking up three strikeouts.

Three whiffs in 15 innings? Who would've thought that of Cueto? Two earned runs in 15 innings? Who could ask for more?

The "old" Cueto taking the mound after a 10-day rest could also have been cause for concern. But this "new" Cueto has matured also in regards to taking proper care of himself between starts, whatever the span.

"He works hard, he runs a lot. He's learned himself," said Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker. "He's learned how to get his work in in the bullpen. He's getting to the point in his career, even though he's still very young and hasn't been here very long, when he really knows himself and he knows his body.

"So I think he'll be outstanding."

No argument from Cueto.

"I'm going to throw a nice game," he said. "I'm going to do my job."

Not exactly Joe Namath guarantee stuff, but the Reds will take it. They like the confidence, and they anticipate the result.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @TomDinger on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.