The Cincinnati Reds hope Johnny Cueto can give their playoff chances a boost on Monday night, when the right-hander returns to the rotation to start the opener of a three-game set with the Houston Astros.
Cueto, who was 19-9 with a 2.78 earned run average a season ago, has not started since June 28 because of a strained right lat muscle that sent him to the disabled list for the third time this season. He has posted just nine starts this year, going 4-2 with a 3.33 ERA.
Rather than put Cueto in the bullpen to round into form, manager Dusty Baker will give the 27-year-old the start today after he threw 60 pitches in a batting practice session last Wednesday.
"He appears relatively ready from what we've seen," Baker told his club's website. "We'll see what we can get out of him. It's worth a try, it's worth the effort because he's Johnny Cueto. The more we get out of him (Monday), the more we get out of him the next time, and who knows where he's going to be ready come playoff time."
Cueto is 2-6 with a 3.89 ERA in 12 career starts versus the Astros, former residents of the NL Central before a shift to the AL West before this season. He split two starts against them last year.
The Reds need some kind of jolt as last week they dropped four of six to the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, the bottom two teams in the division. That came after a 6-1 stretch against the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers, a pair of likely 2013 playoff participants.
Cincinnati blew a 5-1 lead to the Brewers on Sunday, dropping a 6-5 decision as four different relievers were charged with a run in the setback.
"That's probably as crushing of a defeat as we've had all year," said starter Bronson Arroyo, who gave up two runs over 6 1/3 innings.
The Reds sit 3 1/2 games back of the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates for first place in the NL Central and saw their lead over Washington for the league's second wild card spot trimmed to 4 1/2 contests.
Cincinnati hopes to avoid another letdown versus the Astros, who are 51-98 this season and have lost two straight on the heels of a four-game win streak.
Houston was bested 2-1 by the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday, getting a homer from Marc Krauss.
Paul Clemens took the loss in the start despite a career-high seven innings of work. He gave up both runs.
"I'm happy with some of it and there was some pitch selection that has got to get better," Clemens said. "I don't know how much you guys were watching, but there were some at-bats there where pitch selection was wrong. This game comes down to two things: executing your pitches and choosing the right pitch in the right situation. I just want to continue to get better at those things."
With Houston shutting down young hurler Jarred Cosart for the rest of the season, Erik Bedard returns to the rotation to make the start tonight.
Bedard is 4-10 with a 4.47 ERA in 29 games (23 starts) this year. He has not made a start since Aug. 21, having appeared out of the bullpen four times since. He is 1-1 with a blown save in that time, allowing five runs over 10 1/3 innings.
"It's going to be fun," the 34-year-old southpaw told his club's website. "Just to get back in the rotation and do what I've done the last 10 years is fun. Hopefully it ends up on a high note."
Bedard will face the Reds for the first time.
The Reds won 10 of 15 versus the Astros last year in their final season as division rivals, going 7-2 in Houston.