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08/20/08 12:16 AM ET

Cueto on losing end of pitchers' duel

Right-hander strong through seven innings; offense quieted

CHICAGO -- Before sending him out to pitch vs. the Cubs on Tuesday, Reds manager Dusty Baker wished aloud for pitcher Johnny Cueto to be able to finish his rookie season strong.

"I'd sure like to get Cueto back to .500," Baker said in his office. "That'd be a heck of a year for him. A heck of a year."

Cueto did his part with a nice effort Tuesday night, but a 5-0 Reds loss to the Cubs made Baker's wish that much harder to grant. The right-handed Cueto equaled a season high with seven innings and gave up just one earned run and four hits with two walks and six strikeouts. He also hit two batters but left trailing by a 1-0 score.

"It was one of the best games I've pitched this year," Cueto said in Spanish with bullpen coach Juan Lopez interpreting.

Cueto was outdone by a dominant opposing performance by Cubs starter Rich Harden (3-1), who struck out 10 over seven scoreless innings with just two hits allowed. Cincinnati's only other hit was a second Jeff Keppinger single in the ninth off Kerry Wood.

The lone run to score against Cueto was preventable. With one out, Harden dropped a safety squeeze bunt to third baseman Edwin Encarnacion. Not appearing to have an eye on Geovany Soto at third base, Encarnacion threw to first base for the out. Soto, who kept even with Encarnacion and drifted down the line, broke for home on the throw. He scored ahead of Joey Votto's desperation heave home, which got away for an error that moved Kosuke Fukudome to third base.

"I just told the whole infield to be aware of the safety squeeze," Baker said. "That was a perfect situation for it. I don't know if he heard me. That runner on third base is far more important than the one going down to first. You have to learn from it. Soto executed it perfectly. He went at the right time. Votto had no chance of throwing him out."

Encarnacion maintained that he snuck a peek at Soto before throwing the ball.

"I looked behind my shoulder but he was frozen and didn't move. I went to first," Encarnacion said.

It should have been a more rewarding night for Cueto. Pleasantly missing from his outing was the bumpy first inning, which had been an issue, especially of late. He threw 27 first-inning pitches in his previous start vs. the Pirates during a win on Thursday, and 26 in the first inning two starts ago against Houston. Both starts lasted just five innings because his pitch counts were too high, too fast.

In the first inning vs. the Cubs on Tuesday, Cueto retired the side in order and threw 16 pitches.

"He threw the ball well," Baker said. "That's as well as he's thrown the ball since early in the year. He's getting better. He threw more quality strikes to get ahead."

Beyond the first inning, there were tense moments, but Cueto worked out of danger numerous times. He had runners in scoring position with less than two outs in the second through sixth innings.

In the second, Cueto began by drilling leadoff hitter Aramis Ramirez in the back and walked Jim Edmonds on four pitches. But Cueto followed by getting Soto to ground into a 5-4-3 double play and threw a groundout to Fukudome.

"I was concentrating on making good pitches to try and get a double play," Cueto said.

Cueto gave up leadoff doubles in the third and fourth inning and got away clean. In the fifth, Soto led off with a triple to center field just out of reach of Corey Patterson's diving attempt. That led to Harden's bunt for Chicago's first run.

In the seventh, Cueto retired the side in order. His 111th and final pitch was a 95-mph fastball that struck out pinch-hitter Mike Fontenot.

"I was pretty comfortable mixing pitches in and out and up and down," said Cueto, who relied mainly on his slider and two-seam fastball.

"He pitched great," Encarnacion said. "I'm sorry we didn't hit well like we're supposed to hit for him or help him out to win the game."

The game opened up against Reds reliever Mike Lincoln during a four-run Cubs eighth. The Reds have lost 18 of their last 23 games.

In 26 starts and 152 innings this season, Cueto is 8-12 with a 4.74 ERA. A .500 season is still within reach.

"I knew it was a close game. I was concentrating to keep the game close and the score," Cueto said. "Before the game, the guys told me that I'm going to face good hitters. I said I didn't care. I was going to get a good game. We lost the game, but I know I pitched good. I feel bad because we lost."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.