CINCINNATI -- As Wednesday afternoon evolved, there was no doubt that the Reds-Pirates series rubber game at Great American Ball Park belonged to Johnny Cueto. That's because the Reds ace simply took control of it and made it his own.
Cueto was the epitome of in command during a three-hit shutout and 4-0 win over the Pirates that gave the Reds their first series of the season in five tries.
"I felt really strong the whole time and confident," said Cueto, who threw 107 pitches. "At the end of the game, I was really confident that every single pitch was good."
Cueto struck out a career-high 12 without issuing a walk. It was the fourth time in his career he has struck out at least 10. He now has three career shutouts and seven complete games, but it was his first shutout since July 31, 2011, vs. the Giants.
Cincinnati has improved to a 6-9 record after winning three of its last four games.
"I think [Cueto] understands going into it that we're sitting at 5-9 and hadn't won a series," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "It's a team we feel like we'll be competing against all year for the division. Every game is important. It doesn't matter if it's April or September. We need to win games."
Cueto threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of his 30 batters. Two of his hits allowed were infield singles and Andrew McCutchen's one-out double in the fourth was the only time he had a runner in scoring position all afternoon.
"Yeah, it was pretty apparent what he was able do out there," McCutchen said. "Numbers speak for themselves. He had all his stuff working today."
After the double, Cueto retired 17 of his last 18 batters and the final 13 in a row.
"He was mixing that cutter and was unbelievable," catcher Brayan Pena said. "He was using both sides of the plate. He was throwing front-door cutters. He was throwing back-door cutters. It made his changeup and sinker even better. He's been pitching very good lately."
Over his four starts in 2014, Cueto has a 1.50 ERA with five earned runs allowed over 30 innings. He's walked eight and struck out 35.
Yet, Cueto has only one victory. Before Wednesday, the Reds had scored one run over Cueto's 21 innings while he was on the mound.
"He's been great the first three starts. He was dominant today," Price said. "It was a huge boost for us because we were looking to win our first series and certainly Pittsburgh is a handful and has been."
The Reds have scored 30 runs over their last four games after having a league-low 28 scored over the first 10 games. Compared to their previous three days, they remained frugal with their run support for Cueto. But relative to his starts, it was an embarrassment of riches.
Combining Billy Hamilton's speed with Pirates starter Francisco Liriano's wildness enabled the Reds to score an important first-inning run. Liriano walked Hamilton, who then got a fantastic jump to steal second base. A wild pitch to Joey Votto moved Hamilton to third base. After Votto walked, a second wild pitch to Brandon Phillips let Hamilton score without a play at the plate.
Liriano settled in and kept the Reds in check much of the afternoon after the first. In the seventh after Cueto hit a one-out single, Votto later hit a two-out, two-run homer to right-center field to make it a 3-0 game. It was Votto's third homer over the last four games.
In the eighth, Pena hit a liner to right field that was misjudged by Travis Snider and sailed over his head for an RBI double that scored Chris Heisey.
"You feel good, but when they're scoring runs for you, you still have to concentrate and think it's 0-0," Cueto said via translator Tomas Vera.
Cincinnati's recent offensive surge seems to have coincided with a lineup change that moved Votto to the second spot and Phillips to No. 3, along with some adjustments around the middle of the order.
"To start out as poorly as we have, it's big to get these two wins and hopefully some momentum," said Heisey, who started in right field for Jay Bruce. "It's early but at the same time, I remember back in 2011 when we kept saying 'It's early, it's early,' and all of a sudden it wasn't early anymore and we were out of the race. We have to play well. We can't get too far behind. We have the team to do it. We have to put it all together like we have these last two games."
With the add-on runs and Cueto having only 98 pitches after eight innings, the Reds' bullpen remained idle.
"He would have gone out either way," Price said. "He's our ace. He's our No. 1. We have an outstanding bullpen, but it was his game for me."
Cueto got Starling Marte looking at strike three and then struck out Snider for strikeout No. 12. McCutchen flied out to right field to end it after a brisk two hours, 22 minutes. Cueto is 14-4 with a 2.22 ERA lifetime vs. Pittsburgh. One game not on the ledger was the National League Wild Card Game in October when Liriano bested Cueto PNC Park and eliminated Cincinnati from the playoffs.
"I never think too much about those things," Cueto said. "That was 2013. This is 2014. That year is already over."
And this one is off to a superb start.