The Cincinnati Reds got a scare Friday night when manager Bryan Price and athletic trainer Paul Lessard were forced to visit Mat Latos on the mound in the third inning, shortly after Chris Heisey's lovely diving catch to steal a hit from Gaby Sanchez, and then again in the fifth after Latos came grimacing off the mound.
Both times, Latos stayed in the game, and the problem turned out to be back spasms, not his arm. The back spasms might have stemmed from Latos -- who is built like a pitcher, not a sprinter -- being forced to run hard to first base to try to stay out of a double play in the second. (He failed.) In the end, Latos left after just 74 pitches in five innings, and noting that it's not his arm gives cold comfort after the Reds' co-ace (with Johnny Cueto) missed much of the first half recovering from surgery on his left knee.
Latos had a shaky fourth inning, when he grooved a couple of pitches to exactly the hitters you don't groove pitches to, giving up home runs to Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, whose shot was a three-run blast. But there's a good chance the poor pitches were caused in part by Latos pitching in pain, and one bad inning doesn't change the fact that Latos is an excellent pitcher whom the Reds cannot afford to add to their injury hit parade, which already includes:
Homer Bailey, knee, expected to make his next start.
Billy Hamilton, hamstring, playing.
Skip Schumaker, concussion, out for at least the seven-day disabled list period.
Brandon Phillips, thumb, out for six weeks.
Joey Votto, quadriceps, out for who knows how long, and limited even when he comes back.
Sean Marshall, shoulder, out for the year.
Every team has injuries, but the Reds have seen their core decimated. Votto is one of the best hitters in the game. Hamilton is having a surprisingly good year, with better-than-expected defense buoying a WAR (FanGraphs version) that rates behind only the All-Star quartet of Mike Trout, Carlos Gomez, McCutchen and Adam Jones among center fielders. Bailey is 11th in baseball in innings pitched over the past three years, and his ERA over that span is a bit better than league average. Marshall has a 168 ERA+ since 2010 as a high-leverage reliever despite lacking big-time fastball gas. And that list doesn't include the 15 or so starts that Latos already missed or the month and a half the Reds endured without 100 mph man Aroldis Chapman.
All told, the Reds might consider themselves fortunate to have come into Friday's contest against the Pirates just 2 1/2 games back of Milwaukee in the NL Central and just half-game back of the second wild-card spot. Such is the National League Central, with the division-leading Brewers having lost 10 of 11 after falling to the Cardinals on Friday. Speaking of the Cardinals, they're not playing at all like the Cardinals even before losing Yadier Molina, arguably their best player, for two to three months, with the Pirates somehow hanging around despite their second-best player being all-or-nothing slugger Alvarez.
If the NL Central is a war of attrition, the Reds are losing at a rapid rate, and their lack of quality depth is shining through. Latos, should he miss more time, would presumably be replaced by David Holmberg, a polish-first pitcher without great stuff who hasn't missed bats in Triple-A. Tony Cingrani would be a nice option had he not gone down with a shoulder injury shortly after his demotion to Louisville earlier this year. He hasn't pitched since.
This is on top of the team's best idea for a Votto replacement: Brayan Pena, a 32-year-old catcher with a 77 major league OPS+. Pena's never hit before. He's not going to hit now. He's not even all that likely to match Votto's well-regarded defense. The Reds surely know all this; there's just nothing to be done about it at this point short of a trade. They could play Donald Lutz or Neftali Soto, but the former is a 25-year-old who's hit .227/.299/.370 in Triple-A this year and the latter ... well, the latter is actually hitting in the minors, but the Reds have chosen Pena over him both times Votto has gone down, and they know a lot more about Soto than we do. The pattern repeats itself at second base, where Ramon Santiago is now installed. Santiago has gone deep into the playoffs as a member of the Detroit Tigers the past couple of years, but not on his merits: He's a 34-year-old whose main distinction in his career is leading the league in sacrifice bunts in 2003.
On the other hand, baseball being baseball, Friday's game showed that all is hardly lost for Cincinnati. Faced with a 5-1 deficit in the bottom of the seventh, the Reds began to come back with a two-run rally in the seventh helped by Alvarez airmailing an easy throw into somewhere in the vicinity of the loge section of the seats. (Lutz contributed to this rally with a sharp ground single.) In the eighth, against All-Star Tony Watson, Cincinnati closed the gap with a Devin Mesoraco homer, then tied and took the lead on four consecutive singles, the last two from Santiago and Pena.
After Chapman engaged in his standard ninth inning (three batters, three strikeouts, eight pitches clocked at 100 mph or higher), the Reds had hung Watson with his first loss of the season and gained a game on Pittsburgh as well as Milwaukee. Not bad for a bunch of replacements who saw their ace head to the clubhouse early in the game.
The Reds' position players are what they are, and what they are isn't great. Still, worse hitters than Santiago and Pena have had a couple of hot months, and if Latos and Bailey are healthy, the pitching is formidable, certainly good enough to carry the team at least into the NL wild-card game.
Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beanball on the SweetSpot Network.