On a 1-2 pitch to Brandon Inge with one out in the fifth, Cueto threw a changeup that appeared to be over the plate for a strike. Home plate umpire James Hoye called it a ball. Inge hit the next offering for a single into left field to make sure that Cueto wouldn't be achieving the history that Homer Bailey did last Sept. 28 with the first no-hitter at PNC Park and the 15th in Reds history.
"Yeah, I was thinking about that. It was a good pitch," Cueto said via translator Tomas Vera. "On the next pitch, he made an adjustment and got the hit."
"That was close," agreed manager Dusty Baker said. "It was kind of an excuse-me hit [Inge] got. I'll take a one-hitter all night."
From there, Cueto faced the minimum. Inge was erased when Clint Barmes bounced to third base, where Todd Frazier made a nice play and threw across his body for an inning-ending double play.
Cueto retired 21 of his final 22 batters. He walked one batter, hit one batter and struck out six.
"We've seen Johnny real good before, we saw the effort he was able to put up for them last year," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's come off the DL, got a WHIP a little over one -- league average is 1.84. We saw it all tonight. He's very stingy out there. We had one push early and I think he had 30-something pitches after two and he was in command the rest of the day."
Not only did Cueto keep in check a red-hot Pittsburgh club that came in winners of five of its previous six and 13 of 16, he kept the ball out of the outfield. After Inge's hit, nothing left the infield.
"He was Johnny. He pitched great," right fielder Jay Bruce said. "The numbers in the game spoke for itself. He's a huge piece of the puzzle we have back, so that's good."
Pittsburgh was the site on April 13 when Cueto strained his right lat muscle during a start, which put him out for almost five weeks on the disabled list.
In three starts since returning, Cueto has a 1.80 ERA with eight hits allowed over 20 innings. He is 3-0 with a 2.17 ERA in six starts overall this season.
"I feel really well," Cueto said. "I made the adjustment I had to make and I feel good so far. It's good to come back because here was the place I got hurt."
This start was, by far, Cueto's most dominant of 2013.
"We'll have to see how he comes out of this," Baker said. "Every game is going to be a little bit iffy. We'll see how he feels the next day before we definitely say he's out of the woods. He was definitely very good today. He looked like the Johnny Cueto of old today."
It remained a scoreless game until one out in the fourth inning. Bruce, who was 2-for-33 with 16 strikeouts lifetime against Pirates starter Wandy Rodriguez, hit a 2-0 pitch for a solo home run to right-center field for his eight homer of the season and the lead.
Leading off the sixth, Brandon Phillips slugged a 2-1 Rodriguez into the first couple of rows near the left-field corner for his ninth homer.
The Reds scored four runs over the final two innings against lefty reliever Mike Zagurski, who labored with 56 pitches to get five outs while walking four, hitting a batter and throwing three wild pitches. A lengthy top of the ninth erased any glimmer of hope that Cueto would complete his stellar start.
With the six-run lead, Baker called on Sam LeCure to pitch the bottom of the ninth. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, both 34-21 this season, are tied for the second-best record in baseball.
Baker was unlikely to let Cueto continue since he was at 103 pitches through his eight innings.
"We had him on 85-90 [pitches] the first time and 90-100 the last time, give or take a couple," Baker said. "It was the same this time. Then we got those extra runs and it made it a lot easier decision. He was coming out."