Johnny Cueto's slight build and powerful fastball had many baseball experts comparing him to Pedro Martinez after his first two dominant major-league starts.
They haven't all been that easy.The Cincinnati Reds' prized rookie, who hasn't won since his major-league debut, will try to lead the Reds to their fourth straight win on Wednesday when they play the middle game of a three-game road set with the St. Louis Cardinals.Cincinnati (12-15) didn't even expect the 22-year-old Cueto to be in the major leagues to start the season, considering he began 2007 in the lowest level of its minor-league system.But Cueto (1-2, 4.05 ERA) earned a slot in the rotation and was fantastic in his major-league debut, allowing only one run on one hit over seven innings and striking out 10 in a 3-2 win over Arizona on April 3."Going into spring training, there were probably more reasons to think he would start the season at Triple-A than here," said recently fired Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky. "He pitched so well that he forced our decision. Actually, he made our decision easy."Cueto was also impressive in his second start even though he didn't earn a decision, but is 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA in his last three starts. He gave up five runs in seven innings and struck out only two in losing 5-3 to Houston on Thursday."His velocity was down a little bit," manager Dusty Baker told the team's official Web site. "His stuff wasn't quite as sharp, but he pitched good enough to keep us in the ballgame."Cincinnati's offense hasn't given Cueto much support, scoring 11 total runs in his five starts. But the Reds' bats haven't been struggling much during their winning streak. They scored 10 runs apiece in winning their final two games in San Francisco over the weekend, and had 11 hits on Monday in their 4-3 win over St. Louis (16-11).As third baseman Edwin Encarnacion has gotten better, so has Cincinnati's run production. He began the season in a 2-for-24 (.083) slump, but is hitting .371 since with five homers and 11 RBIs.He had two RBIs on Monday, and also made two potentially game-saving defensive plays, impressive for a player often maligned for his defense."Some day, he has a chance to be (a Gold Glove winner) out there," Baker said.Encarnacion is hitting .342 with nine homers and 23 RBIs against the Cardinals in his first three major-league seasons.St. Louis has received great starting pitching in April despite heading into the season with a rotation consisting of mostly journeymen starters.Joel Pineiro (1-2, 5.29) certainly fit that bill coming out of spring training and his first start was disastrous, as he allowed six runs in just 3 2-3 innings in a 7-4 loss to San Francisco on April 13.But he pitched well in his second start, and dominated Pittsburgh on Thursday, allowing just one run in seven innings and striking out six in a 6-2 win."I thought Pineiro was outstanding," manager Tony La Russa told the team's official Web site. "From the first pitch to the last pitch, he made so many quality throws."The Cardinals have only scored 14 runs in their last four games, but Albert Pujols still has five hits in 12 at-bats in that stretch. He's hitting .382 -- the second-best average in baseball -- with five homers and 20 RBIs, and he leads the major leagues with 29 walks.Pujols has dominated Cincinnati in his career, hitting .369 with 29 homers and 91 RBIs.