Cueto does it all vs. Bucs to notch milestone 20th win

Go-ahead hit makes righty first Reds player to reach mark since '88

Cueto does it all vs. Bucs to notch milestone 20th win

CINCINNATI -- How badly did the Reds want to give ace Johnny Cueto every chance to get his 20th win of the season on Sunday afternoon? With the game tied and a runner on third base and one out in the eighth inning, manager Bryan Price pulled back a pinch-hitter to let Cueto bat for himself.

That was one gutsy call, but Cueto rewarded his manager and himself by hitting a full-count pitch for a go-ahead single up the middle in the Reds' eventual 4-1 victory over the Pirates at Great American Ball Park. Cueto became the club's first 20-game winner since Danny Jackson won 23 games in 1988.

"I still don't understand this. I don't understand that at-bat," Cueto said through translator Tomas Vera. "I told my manager I want to hit, and he gave me the confidence to do it. So I went out there and got the hit, and I still don't understand it."

Over his eight innings pitched, Cueto allowed one earned run and six hits with no walks and seven strikeouts. He finished his season 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA. The right-hander also has the NL innings title at 243 2/3 and finished tied for the NL lead with Stephen Strasburg with 242 strikeouts.

By winning two out of three in the series, Cincinnati finished its season with a 76-86 record for fourth place in the National League Central. The Pirates' loss meant the Cardinals clinched the division and Pittsburgh will host the Giants in the NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday.

There may not have been the drama for the Reds of having a postseason berth on the line, but there was no lacking for excitement during the eighth inning.

It was a 1-1 game in the bottom of the frame when Jason Bourgeois led off with a triple through the gap in left-center field against reliever Tony Watson. With the infield playing in, Zack Cozart hit a bullet that was caught by third baseman Josh Harrison.

That set up the chance for Cueto to help his own cause. Price knew the decision to let him hit would invite second guessing.

"I put Johnny Cueto above everything else -- including our ballclub, including the playoff race, etc. -- because I felt like he earned it," Price said. "I wasn't so unsure he wouldn't put the ball in play right there and actually drive in that run by putting the ball in play with the infield in."

It was the 15th time this season that Cueto has pitched at least eight innings and allowed two or fewer earned runs.

"I feel really happy, because I've won 19 games before [in 2012], I want to break my own personal record," Cueto said. "You always want to win 20, and I feel really, really happy."

Cueto was lifted for a pinch-runner after his hit and then watched from the dugout as Kristopher Negron provided insurance with a first-pitch two-run home run from reliever Justin Wilson.

"We've had the ups and downs, and to finish up strong like that the past couple games really gives us momentum," Negron said. "And any momentum -- whether it's the last game of the year or anything like that -- is good."

Aroldis Chapman pitched around a leadoff single and struck out the side in the ninth to record his 36th save.

The Reds jumped on Gerrit Cole with back-to-back singles from Negron and Brandon Phillips in the first. Todd Frazier followed with a chopper to third base, where Harrison made a pretty leaping grab and throw to first for an RBI groundout and a 1-0 lead. Cole struck out a career-high-tying 12 over seven innings -- including eight looking at third strikes.

Cueto gave up a pair of two-out singles in the first inning and a two-out double in the second. But he did not give up a run until Neil Walker hit a 0-1 pitch for a drive over the right-field bullpen to lead off the fourth inning. He went on to retire 14 of the next 15 batters.

With one out in the eighth, Cueto gave up a Travis Snider double and hit Andrew McCutchen with a pitch. Walker ended the inning with a groundout to first base, where Cueto received the throw at the bag. He pumped his fist twice as he headed off the field as 34,424 fans at Great American Ball Park cheered loudly.

"I feel really happy, because I was down in the count for him, then I threw a changeup," Cueto said. "And then when I saw that ground ball, I said, 'I've got it, he's mine.'"

Not long after that, 20 wins belonged to Cueto as well.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.