If this season is going to indeed be Johnny Cueto's final lap with the Reds, the ace got off to a flying start.
A 20-game winner and National League Cy Young Award runner-up last year, Cueto dazzled in his 2015 debut on Opening Day. In seven scoreless innings, he gave up four hits and one walk with 10 strikeouts while throwing 100 pitches, 70 for strikes. The Reds went on to defeat the Pirates, 5-2.
"All of my pitches were low. I was able to control that. I felt really well. Everything that I did was working the way I wanted," Cueto said via translator Tomas Vera.
Now in his contract year, Cueto had set a deadline for Monday to get an extension done or he would explore what should be a lucrative free-agent market after the season. Talks never got into the serious phase, however. But Cueto had more pressing things on his mind.
"I want to dedicate everything I do to my mom," Cueto said. "I talked to her today and she is doing great. She's doing outstanding. This game was for her."
Cueto had to leave Spring Training for over a week to tend to his mother, Cristina, who needed open-heart surgery in the Dominican Republic. He missed one start but was able to stay on track for the season.
Entering the game needing five strikeouts to reach 1,000 for his career, Cueto hit that plateau rather quickly vs. the Pirates. By striking out the side in the top of the third, Cueto reached the milestone figure. No. 1,000 came whenGregory Polanco looked at a called strike to end the inning while leavingJosh Harrison stranded on second base.
The Reds' Opening Day record for strikeouts is 12, by Gary Nolan in 1969. During the game, Cueto passed Tom Browning and Jim O'Toole, respectively, to take 10th on the club's all-time list for strikeouts with 1,005.
Cueto benefitted from some nice defense, including a diving catch by third baseman Todd Frazier to rob Andrew McCutchen of extra bases in the first inning.
"It was exciting to watch him work fast," Frazier said of Cueto. "On defense, we love to work fast. You saw how we played. When you're working fast, there are better opportunities for us to get those balls that are in the hole, down the line or up in the air."
Throughout the day, Cueto was mixing his delivery and sometimes shortened it while eliminating his well-known body twist -- even when not in the stretch position.
"I'm always going to have something different," Cueto said. "It's how I have fun. I'm going to be creating new things."
The biggest threat to Cueto's day proved to be the weather, but he overcame that as well. A 35-minute rain delay came before the top of the sixth, but he notched four of his strikeouts after returning.
"He weathered the rain delay, came back out and threw beautifully," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "He had the full mix working. He had the full turn. He had the abbreviated windup. He had command. It seemed like he and [catcher] Devin [Mesoraco] were on the same page and moved back and forth. He never got himself really in a lot of trouble. I didn't anticipate him being that sharp."