SAN FRANCISCO -- Generally speaking, it is usually not a good sign when you use three of your starting pitchers in the first three innings of one game, especially when you're just starting the postseason. Then again, it's better than getting no-hit in your postseason opener.
In a start that made their 2010 no-hit loss to Roy Halladay seem downright encouraging, the Reds lost their ace just eight pitches into the game Saturday night when Johnny Cueto left in the first inning with what was described as either back spasms or a ribcage issue. It was the shortest start in postseason history and definitely not the way you want to start the playoffs. Especially when you left one of your five starters off the roster, are facing an ace who threw a perfect game and a one-hitter this season and when you haven't won a postseason game in 17 years.
"When Johnny went down I was like, 'Gosh, oh no, we're done. Why? Why?'" Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "And we were out there talking and we were like, 'Let's win this for Johnny.' It just sucks to see the ace go down like that."
And yet three-plus hours and six pitchers later, the Reds were 5-2 winners over the Giants in the Division Series opener. That could leave them in excellent shape for the remainder of the series, which would end with the final three games (if necessary) in Cincinnati. Provided, of course, that Cueto can pitch again, as well as previously scheduled Game 3 starter Mat Latos, who wound up throwing four innings in his place Saturday.
"As of right now, we don't know," Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said. "I just saw Johnny after the game and he said he was better. Whatever that means, because he was in quite a bit of pain out there after he threw the pitch. The fact that he said he's better -- and Johnny is usually honest with us -- gives us a glimmer of hope that he might be back. I can't say for sure. You know how back spasms are."
"If it's a spasm or it's a cramp, terrific," pitching coach Bryan Price said. "If it's something more significant than that, we may have to look at some alternatives."
For that matter, the Reds don't know when Latos can pitch again, either.
"We'll have to wait and see," Price said. "We asked him to do something out of the ordinary and that was pitching on three days' rest and on the same day he threw a bullpen session. We need to see how he recovers and we also need to see what's going on with Johnny. Once we see that, we'll have an idea of what games we need to cover or not cover with the rest of the group."
Cueto said he felt sharp pain in his back the final two pitches of his pre-game warmup. After being examined by the Reds trainer and Price, he felt better and decided to give it a go. He lasted one out and eight pitches before leaving due to sharp pain.
For a manager who has had so much success in his career, Baker has received a lot of unfair criticism for the way his teams have come up short in the postseason but he was impressively creative Saturday. First, Baker brought in Sam LeCure for Cueto, mostly because LeCure is used to entering a game from the bullpen while Latos had never pitched in relief.
"Sam was doing something he's done before," Price said. "To ask Mat, first of all, if he could even pitch was one thing, let alone saying, 'Hey, go get your glove.' He probably didn't even have his spikes on. That wasn't a terribly difficult decision to make. As a starter, you also had to give him time to prepare. You can't just say, 'Warm up with 20 pitches and then face the heart of their order.' It was a smart move but it didn't take a lot of calculation to make it."
While Latos got himself ready, LeCure pitched 1 2/3 crucial scoreless innings. "That was a big situation for everybody," Price said. "We needed to calm the waters because we were all concerned about losing Johnny. And he also bridged the gap to Mat."
Then Baker used possible Game 4 starter Homer Bailey to pinch-hit for LeCure in a sacrifice bunt situation in the top of the third. After Phillips hit a two-run homer one out later, Baker brought in Latos to pitch the bottom of the third, and the next three innings as well.
"You have to give big props to Mat Latos," Baker said. "I mean, here's a guy sitting back thinking he's going to pitch next week at home and all of a sudden -- boom! -- it's his first playoff game. It was a great feat by him."
Along with their starting pitcher concerns, the Reds also have to wonder a little about closer Aroldis Chapman, who was wild in one inning of relief, loaded the bases, threw a wild pitch and allowed a run before striking out Buster Posey to end the game.
But considering how the night could have gone, the Reds will gladly take the Game 1 win and try again Sunday with Bronson Arroyo on the mound.
"It feels good, showing the fans that we will be playing more games in Cincinnati," Phillips said. "You never want to go home down 0-2, especially that long a flight, getting in at seven in the morning."