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Johnny Cueto embraces role of Reds' ace, changing delivery to try to avoid injuries

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. - Johnny Cueto stood in front of his locker, surrounded by a semicircle of reporters wondering how the Cincinnati Reds' ace was feeling. Missing from the group: a translator.

Cueto took questions in English and answered as best he could, even though he's not totally comfortable with the language. A few times, he stopped and asked to hear the question again.

"I'm trying," he said.

Trying to be more like an ace in some new ways.

The 28-year-old pitcher is doing interviews in English to become more accessible this spring, something that he considers part of being a leader. He's also changing his delivery to try to avoid the muscle injuries that wiped out his 2012 playoffs and most of last season.

Cueto still has long hair that grabs attention and a dedication to conditioning that his teammates and coaches admire. With outspoken starter Bronson Arroyo moving on to Arizona, Cueto thinks it's time to become more front-and-centre in one of the NL's best rotations.

"In Johnny's case, I think he's absolutely latching onto that role of being in a place of more leadership and just trying to be a bigger part of what's going on here," manager Bryan Price said. "You're exposing yourself when you're doing something you're not comfortable doing.

"To say, 'Hey, I want to do this and be proactive' speaks a lot about that maturity and what type of role he wants to fill for our club, especially now that Bronson's gone."

The biggest thing is keeping him healthy.

Cueto emerged as one of the NL's best in 2012, when he won a career-high 19 games. He started the Reds' opening playoff game in San Francisco and pulled a muscle in his right side, forcing him out after only eight pitches.

Last season was more of the same. A strained muscle below his pitching shoulder kept acting up, forcing him onto the disabled list three times. He was finally healthy at the end of the season, but never got fully back into form. Cueto finished 5-2 in 11 starts with a 2.82 ERA.

"I don't know what's going on," Cueto said. "It's crazy."

Price was elevated from pitching coach after the Reds lost the wild card game in Pittsburgh — Cueto started and took the 6-2 loss — and manager Dusty Baker got fired. Price has worked with Cueto to change his delivery slightly this season. The right-hander turns his back to the plate as part of his wind-up, reminiscent of Luis Tiant, and falls off to the side of the mound when he releases the ball.

Price is hoping that by making his delivery a little more compact, Cueto can be more consistent in releasing the ball and avoid straining his shoulder or his side.

"We don't want to go down this road (again)," Price said. "You don't take a No. 1 starter out of a rotation and think that you are as good as you can be. He's a huge impact pitcher. You don't have bad matchups with Johnny. You always feel you're at the advantage when he's going to pitch."

Price won't select an opening day starter until he sees how everyone is doing, but it's clear how he would like it to line up.

"I love Johnny at the top of our rotation," Price said. "There's other guys I'd be really happy with at the top as well. But I want to make sure they're healthy and then we'll get them lined up."

Price will have to wait a while on Mat Latos, who had minor surgery on Friday to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. He won't be able to throw for a week to 10 days.

Latos did some rehabilitation work at the Reds' complex on Saturday, walking pain-free without a crutch or a limp.

"I'm able to balance on that leg," Latos said. "I'm walking. So it's a good thing. It's unfortunate what happened, a freak thing."

Latos said his foot got stuck on the ground when he threw during a workout earlier in the week, putting a strain on the knee as he released the ball.

"I just felt a pop and we're here now," he said.

___

Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay

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