Will Injured Johnny Cueto Hang On For ERA Crown?

CINCINNATI, OH: Dusty Baker #12 (center) the Manager of the Cincinnati Reds has his arm around Johnny Cueto #47 (left) while pulling the pitcher from the game against the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cueto injured himself while pitching.(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

For much of this season, Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto has led the National League in ERA.

Yeah. Johnny Cueto.

Surprised? Nobody's really noticed because Cueto's not been a Cy Young candidate because Cueto's not pitched the innings or won the games that would make him a Cy Young candidate. Doesn't have the strikeouts, either.

Frankly, Johnny Cueto hasn't been one of the dozen most valuable pitchers in the National League.

But he was, until Wednesday night, leading the National League with a 2.31 ERA.

Wednesday night, Clayton Kershaw -- before getting himself ejected -- pitched five shutout innings and passed Cueto; 2.305 for Kershaw, 2.308 for Cueto. Obviously that's just the slimmest of margins, and Cueto's still in the race, along with Kershaw and Roy Halladay and perhaps Cliff Lee, too.

Only one problem, though: Cueto's thrown only 156 innings. And you need 162 innings to qualify for the season's ERA title. And Cueto's hurt. Cincinnati.com:

Cueto left the Reds-Chicago Cubs game after 3 2/3 innings with a strained right latissimus dorsi -- the large muscle in the back.

--snip--

What's next for Cueto is hard to say.

"It's in the muscle," Baker said. "That's a good sign. I don't know where he goes from here. Hopefully, we got him out of there on time. . .

"I don't know about his next start. But he two has more or three more. We'll see."

Dusty Baker's math seems a little hazy. If everyone continues in rotation, Cueto would start twice more: on the 19th against the Astros, and the 25th against the Pirates. Cueto can start three more games only if he doesn't miss a start and he starts every four days the rest of the way. The first of those seems problematic, the second highly unlikely.

What seems most likely is that Cueto does miss his next scheduled start, though if he's pushed back two or three days he could still pitch twice more this season. Which would give him ample time to record those last six innings.

Of course, there's another problem: Even if completely healthy, it's not easy to give up fewer than (say) two-and-a-half runs per nine innings. Pitching against the Astros and Pirates does help. But it's still not easy.

The odds are against Cueto, because now he's got two or three things working against him. And that's if you count Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay as just one thing.

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