September return looking likely for Johnny Cueto

San Francisco right-hander throws efficient two innings in second rehab start in AZL

Johnny Cueto pitches against the San Diego Padres in 2017. (K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

ORACLE PARK — The San Francisco Giants could get one of their best arms back for the stretch run. In fact, it’s looking almost certain.

Johnny Cueto — who missed most of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery — had a successful outing on Friday night in his second Arizona League rehab outing, and will make his next appearance either Wednesday or Thursday at Single-A San Jose, manager Bruce Bochy said.

That puts Cueto on track for a September return, adding him to a rotation headed by a resurgent Madison Bumgarner and Saturday’s starter Jeff Samardzija, who’s having a bounceback season after an injury-plagued 2018. If the Giants can stay somewhere near playoff contention (they’re four games out of the second wild card), Cueto’s addition could give them the boost they need.

Cueto, who threw several bullpens for the Giants during their swings through Arizona during his rehab, made his first rehab start on Aug. 4 for the AZL Giants-Black, striking out five on 17 pitches in two innings. On Friday, he hit 92 miles per hour with his fastball against the Arizona League Royals, striking out two for the AZL Giants-Orange and allowing two hits, but needing only 11 pitches.

His next start could come on Wednesday or Thursday, when the San Jose Giants head to Visalia to play the Rawhide, the California League affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Should the organization want Cueto to pitch in San Jose, he would need to wait until Friday when the Inland Empire 66ers, the Los Angeles Angels’ affiliate, comes to the Silicon Valley.

If Cueto is to make his return as expected in September, it would be a huge lift for a rotation currently relying on three rookies — Shaun Anderson (currently on the injured list), Conner Menez and Tyler Beede. Menez, Sunday’s starter was in San Jose at the beginning of 2018.

Cueto’s return in September would give the Giants a chance to space Cueto’s workload out at their leisure with an expanded roster, rather than being pressed to start him every fifth day. That being said, if the Dominican right-hander returns to his pre-injury levels of production, San Francisco will be clamoring for him to pitch as frequently as possible. Before first feeling tenderness in his right elbow in April of 2018, he had an 0.84 ERA through five starters, holding opposing hitters to a .150 average.

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