CINCINNATI — Johnny Cueto ordered three runs. His Cincinnati teammates dutifully delivered.
The Reds pitcher came off the mound after the sixth inning of his start Sunday against the Washington Nationals with the score tied, 3-all.
“I said, ‘I want three runs here. Do it for me,’” Cueto said.
Todd Frazier confirmed Cueto’s order.
“I was screaming with him,” the Cincinnati third baseman said. “He was saying it in Spanish, but we understood.”
Boy, did they. The Reds scored three runs off Washington ace Stephen Strasburg on their way to a 6-3 win in what started out as a highly anticipated matchup of young aces.
Jay Bruce drove in three runs as Cincinnati wrapped up an impressive opening week homestand. Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo, Xavier Paul and Brandon Phillips each had two hits to back Cueto (1-0) and help the Reds win the rubber match of their three-game series with Washington. They pleased manager Dusty Baker by finishing 4-2 at home against the Nationals and Los Angeles Angels, two teams expected to contend this season for post-season berths.
“That’s really big,” Baker said. “That’s what you plan on doing. You want to win two out of three and then maybe go on a long winning streak. You want to get as far away from .500 as possible.”
Cueto needed 108 pitches to get through six innings, allowing seven hits and three runs. He walked three and struck out six. Aroldis Chapman allowed one hit and had two strikeouts in the ninth for his second save.
“There’s pride in facing him,” Cueto said. “He’s a good pitcher like I am. It was a competitive situation.”
Strasburg (1-1) allowed nine hits and six runs with four walks and five strikeouts in 5 1-3 innings. He threw 114 pitches, 73 for strikes. The Reds didn’t exactly overpower him, connecting for just one extra-base hit and three infield singles. They scored one run on an infield out and the go-ahead run on a fielder’s-choice grounder.
“I learned a lot out there,” Strasburg said about facing an opponent’s ace. “You want to be in that situation and go deep into the ballgame.”
Cincinnati left-hander Sean Marshall pitched the seventh in his first appearance of the season after getting over what he described as shoulder fatigue. Jonathan Broxton worked the eighth.
The Reds knocked Strasburg out with that three-run sixth. Rookie Derrick Robinson, called up on Wednesday to replace the injured Ryan Ludwick, led off with his first major league hit, a sharp one-hopper just out of the reach of diving third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
Robinson went to third on Choo’s single to center and slid across the plate with the go-ahead run just ahead of second baseman Danny Espinosa’s throw on Paul’s fielder’s choice.
“It’s not 100 percent that I’m going to score there,” Robinson said. “I just try to use my God-given talent as much as possible.”
Robinson’s speed is what made him the front-runner to be called up when Ludwick went down, Baker said.
“Speed kills,” Baker said. “Speed doesn’t go into slumps. I love speed. I love power, too, but I love speed.”
Both runners moved up on Joey Votto’s chopper to Strasburg and Phillips singled to left through the drawn-in infield to drive in Paul and end Strasburg’s day. Ryan Mattheus relieved Strasburg, and Bruce greeted him with a run-scoring infield single to shortstop Ian Desmond.
The duel between the two right-handers nearly fizzled early.
Strasburg allowed as many hits in the first inning Sunday as he did while throwing seven shutout innings against Miami during a 2-0 win in Washington’s opener on April 1. Four straight runners reached base, including Paul and Phillips with infield singles and Bruce with a bases-loaded, two-run double. Phillips scored the Reds’ third run of the inning on Todd Frazier’s groundout.
The Nationals immediately tied the score in the second on Desmond’s double to left-center, Danny Espinosa’s walk and Kurt Suzuki’s 357-foot home run into the left field seats.
NOTES: The Reds begin their first road trip of the season Monday with three games in St. Louis, where they’ve won just three and split two of their last 27 series, starting in 2003. … Washington returns home after a brief three-game road trip to open a six-game homestand, starting Monday with the first of three interleague games against the White Sox. … Zimmerman’s third-inning error was the 12th committed by a Reds opponents in the first six games of the season. The Reds have been charged with just two.