MIAMI -- Injuries have created opportunities in the Reds' outfield this season.
Manager Dusty Baker has been plugging a hole in left field since Ryan Ludwick tore cartilage in his right shoulder while sliding headfirst into third base during Cincinnati's season opener.
Veteran Chris Heisey was the first player tabbed to fill in for the injured Ludwick, and he played 20 games in left field before going on the disabled list with a right hamstring injury.
Heisey's injury gave five-year veteran Xavier Paul and rookies Derrick Robinson and Donald Lutz a chance to play more often, and the trio has responded with solid results.
Paul, Robinson and Lutz have combined to bat .276 over 72 at-bats on the year, helping the Reds stay competitive in the NL Central. Each player brings something different to Cincinnati's arsenal, and Paul feels the three complement each other well.
"D is a very versatile player," Paul said of Robinson. "He brings more speed to the outfield than anybody else we have, and plays really good defense. I've been swinging the bat pretty well as of late, and now we have Lutzy who can swing the bat and run. He's a pretty good player. I think the three of us will do a pretty good job of filling the hole we are missing with Luddy and Heis out."
On Tuesday night, Paul stepped up in a big way with two outs in the second inning. The 28-year-old hit a three-run double off Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco that put the Reds ahead by five runs in an eventual 6-2 Cincinnati victory.
"I just tried to take all the pressure off myself," Paul said. "The pressure was on Nolasco, because he had just walked in two runs. Then he went 2-0 with me and I knew he didn't want to walk in a third. He would rather see me put the ball in play and drive the runs in than walk in another one. I knew that when I was hitting, and we went 3-1 and I was looking for a ball I could drive and was fortunate to do it."
Paul, who is batting .270 with a pair of homers and 13 RBIs in 30 games this season, feels more comfortable at the plate now that he is playing more regularly. That is good news for Baker and the Reds after Heisey re-aggravated his hamstring injury during his rehab assignment on Monday night.
"I feel pretty good right now with my rhythm and my timing," Paul said. "It's been a little bit easier to keep good rhythm and good timing by playing more often. It's not always easy to come off the bench and pinch-hit. Sometimes you will have pinch-hit at-bats where the swing doesn't feel good and it feels like the pitcher is throwing 100 mph. But when you play more regularly, you get in a groove and everything starts to feel better at the plate. That's where I am right now."
Cueto returning to Reds' rotation on Monday
MIAMI -- Johnny Cueto is nearing his return to the big leagues.
The right-hander, who has been on the disabled list since April 15 with a strained right lat, will be back in the Reds' rotation on Monday night, when he faces the Mets in New York. Cueto's coming off a strong rehab start with Class A Dayton on Tuesday night in which he allowed just three hits over five scoreless innings.
Reds manager Dusty Baker expected a positive report from Cueto's latest rehab outing, and he was pleased to learn that his ace looked strong.
"We anticipated as such," Baker said prior to Wednesday night's 4-0 win over the Marlins. "We think he might be ready for New York City."
While the Reds starters have pitched well in Cueto's absence, Baker is eager to have his ace back in the rotation after playing without him for a month.
"It will be a big boost to get him back," Baker said. "The guy is a first-line pitcher for a reason. Everybody else is kind of a substitute. They've done a good job, but we need Johnny Cueto back. He's not only the best on our team, but one of the best in the league."
Cueto threw 58 pitches -- 39 for strikes -- while issuing no walks and striking out four members of the Tigers' Class A affiliate, the West Michigan Whitecaps, on Tuesday. The 27-year-old tossed another 23 pitches in the bullpen after exiting the game to bring his pitch count to 81 on the night.
Cueto will return to action five days from now on what would have been Mike Leake's regular day to start. But Baker insists that does not mean Leake has lost his spot in the Reds' rotation.
"Who is talking about keeping his spot?" Baker said following Leake's strong start against the Marlins on Wednesday. "He is doing better than some of the guys on our staff. I don't understand why it was coming down between he and anyone else anyway. Leake has pitched well. He's taken us deep into games."
Leake threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings on Wednesday to earn his third win of the year. It was the seventh time the right-hander pitched into the sixth inning in his eight starts this season.
Rookie lefty Tony Cingrani has been impressive while Cueto has been on the disabled list, going 2-0 with a 2.89 ERA in five starts. But Leake has been solid, amassing a 3-2 record to go with his 3.72 ERA.
Baker is not announcing his plans for the starting rotation yet, but the veteran manager believes people should not assume it will be Leake that will be left out of the quintet.
"It was his spot before anybody else came," Baker said. "You don't just give up on somebody like that."
So will it be Leake, Cingrani or another starter bowing out of the rotation?
"We'll worry about that when we get there," Baker said.
Baker allows Reds to play in front of family, friends
MIAMI -- One night after giving Jay Bruce a day off, Reds manager Dusty Baker chose to rest three other regulars.
Shortstop Zack Cozart, third baseman Todd Frazier and catcher Ryan Hanigan were all out of Wednesday's starting lineup. Baker hopes to get his players rest as they are in the first third of a nine-game road trip. But the veteran manager is also strategically selecting when to sit his players so they can play more days in front of family and friends.
Jack Hannahan started at third base for the Reds on Wednesday, partly because Baker took into account the fact that his regular third baseman is from New Jersey. The Reds will spend six of the nine days on this road trip playing in nearby Philadelphia and New York.
"This will let me play Frazier every day in New York in front of his homeboys and his parents," Baker said. "As someone who has played in front of his parents, I would choose to play in front of my parents if I could."
Baker also looked at the pitching matchups and felt it would be best to start Hannahan against Marlins right-hander Alex Sanabia on Wednesday and give Frazier the start in Thursday's finale against Miami's impressive rookie, Jose Fernandez.
"I had a choice to make between today and tomorrow," Baker said. "Tomorrow would be tough and it wouldn't be fair to put Hannahan out there against that guy. He hasn't been playing regularly, and the guy tomorrow has some nasty stuff. The one tonight is more Jack's speed."
Devin Mesoraco hails from Pennsylvania and will likely play multiple games against the Phillies by starting Wednesday. Had he played Thursday against the Marlins, he may have only been available to start once against the Phillies. Now Baker has the option to play the young catcher twice near his hometown, should he choose to.
Cozart is a Tennessee native, so this road trip does not put him near his family. But the rest on Wednesday will help keep him fresh for the final seven days of the trip. It will also give Cesar Izturis a chance to play in the city he calls home in the offseason.
"Izturis is playing tonight for the same reason," Baker said. "Cozart will rest tonight and be able to play more the rest of the trip, while Izzy lives down here and gets to play in front of his homeboys."
Baker's plan even came into effect with his starting rotation. While Flipping Mat Latos and Tony Cingrani was done primarily to give Cingrani extra rest for a sore left shoulder, it also allowed Latos, a Coconut Creek, Fla., native, to pitch in front of family and friends.
David Villavicencio is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.