Edinson Volquez spent four years watching Johnny Cueto evolve into one of the National League’s best pitchers when the two were teammates in Cincinnati from 2008-11.
Three years later, Cueto is still at the top of his game.
At the moment, it looks as if Volquez might be back on the path to joining him.
While Cueto continued his mastery of the Pirates in Cincinnati’s workmanlike 4-1 victory on Tuesday night, Volquez spent six innings matching Cueto zero for zero before faltering in the seventh to send Pittsburgh to its ninth loss in 12 games.
Still, for a pitcher signed to a one-year, $5 million flier in the offseason, Volquez (1-1) is one of the bright spots in his team’s slow start. He gave up two runs and five hits in seven innings, walking one and striking out three while his ERA ticked up to 1.93.
Heady territory for a player who was one of the worst starters in baseball a year ago.
“He’s changing speeds, getting ahead early, throwing first-pitch strikes,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Only three three-ball counts. He’s definitely giving us a chance to win a game and keep us in games.”
Just not enough to win them. Then again, the Pirates rarely do when they face Cueto, who tossed his second three-hit win over Pittsburgh in less than a week. He worked them over in a shutout victory last Thursday in Cincinnati and was just as dominant on a night when the Pirates only managed to get a handful of balls out of the infield.
Cueto (2-2) struck out four and walked three while running his career-long scoreless streak to 21 innings before giving up a home run to Andrew McCutchen with one out in the ninth. He improved to 15-4 in his career against the Pirates and became the first Cincinnati pitcher to toss consecutive complete games since Mat Latos did it in June 2012.
“He’s not really a guy, when he’s throwing strikes, you can wait out,” Hurdle said. “He’s just been really, really tough. Not just on us, but we’ve seen him back-to-back times, probably in a very good place for him.”
Brayan Pena and Zack Cozart had consecutive RBI hits off Volquez in the seventh to provide all the offense Cueto needed.
“I was just making good pitches the first couple, six innings,” Volquez said. “I just made a couple of mistakes in the seventh. Two strikes, single, that’s a bad pitch. That’s the right pitch, but I can’t finish them up.”
The scene wasn’t nearly as electric as Cueto’s previous appearance at PNC Park, when the Cincinnati ace was pushed around early in a 6-2 loss in the National League wild-card game. Cueto upped his record to 9-2 at PNC Park, where the Pirates appear to be no closer to solving him now than they were when they first faced him in 2009.