Right-hander Carlos Villanueva was supposed to spend this season as a swingman in the Cubs bullpen, a stopgap in case another pitcher was injured.
Injuries did, indeed, hit the Cubs in Spring Training, moving Villanueva into the rotation. Now, as Villanueva prepares for his fourth start of the season on Tuesday against the Reds, he's Chicago's top starter. That likely won't be the path Villanueva's counterpart, Cincinnati left-hander Tony Cingrani, follows this season, but the Reds would be thrilled if the young lefty can make their ace's absence sting a little less.
Cingrani, the club's No. 3 prospect, according to MLB.com, showed flashes in his Major League debut on Thursday, striking out eight. Although he needed 102 pitches to make it through only five innings, Reds manager Dusty Baker was happy with the results in an 11-1 win.
"He was probably overthrowing just a little bit because he was throwing high, and that's usually not him," Baker said. "That's to be expected in his first start. He gave us what we needed. We gave him what he needed, which was a cushion I was hoping for."
The 23-year-old Cingrani is only in the Majors because right-hander Johnny Cueto is out with a strained right lat muscle, so it's likely that no matter how well he pitches he'll be back in Triple-A Louisville at some point. But a return to the bullpen doesn't appear to be in the future for Villanueva, who is thriving out of the rotation.
Villanueva is the first pitcher to begin his Cubs career with three straight quality starts since Carlos Silva began his with four straight in 2010.
Cubs: Historically close games
All 18 of the Cubs' games have been decided by four runs or fewer, the longest such streak for the club in 105 years, when the 1908 squad began the year with 21 straight games.
Additionally, 15 of Chicago's first 18 games have been decided by three runs or fewer for the first time since 2001.
• Shortstop Starlin Castro has a 14-game hitting streak, the longest single-season run of his career, and longest active streak in the Majors.
• Dioner Navarro is 4-for-8 with two homers as a pinch-hitter this season, compared to 0-for-16 as a starter.
Reds: Halfway home
On Monday, the Reds passed the halfway point in a stretch of 20 games in 20 days. It started a bit rough with a sweep in Pittsburgh, but the club has now won seven of eight.
"I wasn't happy in the beginning, but I've been happy in the middle and I hope I'm happy at the end of this streak," Baker said. "We're just playing every day. We're not counting. We're not thinking about anything. Those three games did hurt at Pittsburgh, but we responded from that very, very quickly. These guys are coming to play."
• Second baseman Brandon Phillips' 146 career home runs sit one shy of tying Lee May for 15th on Cincinnati's all-time list.
• With an 11-3 record at Great American Ball Park this season, the Reds are off to their best home start since the 1994 club went 12-3.
• Villanueva is holding lefties to an .094 (3-for-32) batting average.
• Chicago is hitting .141 with runners in scoring position.