Cincy boots sweep opportunity

CINCINNATI -- They stood four deep in front of the locker of the 17-year major league third baseman, the 37-year-old who had won eight gold gloves and on this night found himself in the lineup in part because of his ability to cleanly field a baseball.

As he took a shower, Scott Rolen had to know they'd be waiting. The cameras and boom mikes. Spotlights and tape recorders. They were already filled with answers from most everyone else, explanations as to why this happened, how that happened and what makes a team that two days ago looked invincible find itself one step closer to being on the wrong side of baseball history.

But no one could leave without an explanation from Rolen. After all, in a night of failed opportunities, his was the biggest blunder of all. As he returned to his locker after his shower, Rolen sidestepped his way through the throng and quipped under his breath, "What did I do? Or better yet, what didn't I do?"

He already knew, of course. In the 20 or so minutes since the game had ended he had replayed the blunder in his head a countless number of times and perhaps most frustratingly, couldn't come up with a better resolution. Faced with the same situation again, he knew he would do the same thing. He would just hope for a better outcome.

On this night, Rolen sensed trouble from the moment the ground ball left the bat of San Francisco's Joaquin Arias. It was the top of the 10th inning. The score was tied 1-1. A Ryan Hanigan passed ball left runners at second and third when Arias smacked a grounder Rolen's way.

He was stuck. He knew Arias had speed. To have any chance of throwing Arias out, he knew he had to charge the ball. But by doing that, he met the ball in between awkward hops. It sat in his glove for a moment. Then squirted out to the ground below. He picked it up, threw as hard as he could to first. But it was too late. Arias was safe. By a half step. Meanwhile, Buster Posey crossed home plate, giving San Francisco a 2-1 lead, its first in the entire series. A 1-2-3 bottom of the 10th later and the Giants had survived to see another day. And Rolen was left to explain what happened.

"With a man on third, that's not the ground ball that I wanted to see off the bat," Rolen said. "I just tried to be aggressive and make the play. It was a do-or-die play. I wasn't able to make the play and it cost us the game.

"It's not the outcome I wanted. It's not the set of interviews I want to be doing."

Since his was the play that directly led to the go-ahead run, Rolen was of course in the center of the spotlight. But he was hardly the only Red at fault on Tuesday. His was merely the most obvious of miscues that not only cost Cincinnati a chance to be the first team to punch its ticket to the LCS, but at the same time elevated blood pressures throughout the Queen City.

Beyond Rolen's error, there was Hanigan's passed ball, which allowed Posey to move up to third base and eliminated any margin for error. There was Brandon Phillips, who tried to advance from first to third on a passed ball in the first inning, only to be gunned down by Posey. The Reds would only go on to score one run in what could have been a big inning. Or there was the entire Cincinnati offense, which after that first inning managed only one hit the rest of the way and at no point put a runner in scoring position with less than two outs.

"We just didn't get the job done tonight," first baseman Joey Votto said. "But it's a five-game series. It isn't time to panic."

Maybe. But maybe not. Sure, no National League team has ever come back from an 0-2 deficit to win a division series. And yes, the Reds didn't lose three games in a row all season. But failing to close out the Giants on Tuesday leaves Cincinnati more vulnerable than most teams with a 2-1 series lead.

Now, manager Dusty Baker finds himself scrambling to find a starter for Wednesday afternoon's Game 4. While the Giants are set with Barry Zito in Game 4 (San Francisco has won each of his last 11 starts) and ace Matt Cain in Game 5, the Reds aren't sure what to do, thanks to the mild oblique strain suffered by Johnny Cueto eight pitches into Game 1.

After Tuesday night's loss, Baker gave a cryptic response when asked who he planned on sending to the hill Wednesday.
"I wish I had an answer," Baker said. "But I don't."

His options include Mat Latos, who threw four innings of one-run ball in relief of Cueto on Saturday. Or Mike Leake, who isn't even on the playoff roster. But to make Leake available, the Reds would need permission from MLB to remove Cueto from its playoff roster, rendering him unavailable until the World Series.

Further complicating the situation are rumblings that Latos may be suffering from flu-like symptoms, a report that Baker wouldn't touch after Tuesday's loss.
"I can't answer that," he said.

The end result is a situation in which most of the Reds left Great American Ball Park Tuesday night unsure who they would be lining up behind come Wednesday.

"I don't know," Rolen said.

"We haven't been told," Votto said.

Does it make a difference?

"No," Rolen insisted. "Is that the right answer? Look, we're going to show up. We've got a stretch time on the board. We'll show up and swing the bats."

If the players don't seem concerned, the fans certainly might be. And to think, perhaps it all could have been avoided if not for a passed ball here, an error there or an aggressive baserunning mistake. Instead, the Reds are left still searching for their first playoff win in their 9-year-old Great American Ball Park.

At least for now, the champagne must wait.

"We have two more home games," Votto said. "You hope we don't have to play a final home game here, but if we have to, we have to."