Baker's smart move with Latos pays off

Mat Latos pitched four effective innings in relief to help the Reds top the Giants. Kelley L Cox/US Presswire

When Cincinnati Reds starter Johnny Cueto had to leave with back spasms after recording just one out Saturday, manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price had four reasonable options:

1. Bring in reliever Sam LeCure, who didn’t start a game this season but had started 10 games in his career over the previous two seasons, and let him go as long as possible.

2. Turn into it into a bullpen game: Use LeCure and Alfredo Simon, another reliever who can be stretched out, and hope those two could get the game into the fifth inning.

3. Use Game 2 starter Bronson Arroyo, who last pitched on Monday.

4. Use Game 3 starter Mat Latos, who last pitched on Tuesday, meaning he’d be pitching on three days’ rest, something he’d never done before in the majors.

All were certainly defensible options. The Reds chose right: A combination of No. 1 and No. 4. LeCure got five outs to get the Reds through the second inning and then Baker gave the ball to Latos, who pitched four innings of one-run baseball, allowing only a home run to Buster Posey in the sixth inning. That decision proved key as the Reds beat the Giants 5-2 in their Division Series opener.

The smart thing Baker and Price did was to first use LeCure, a guy used to pitching in relief. That allowed Latos to go to the bullpen and conduct his usual pre-start routine and not potentially rush himself coming in for the injured Cueto. He wasn't dominant pitching on short rest, recording just one strikeout, but he got some help from his defense and bridged the gap to the back end of the Reds’ bullpen.

Defense -- and maybe a little luck -- was a huge key for the Reds. I counted six big defensive plays that saved bases and/or hits. In the second inning, Drew Stubbs cut off Gregor Blanco's double in the gap, preventing Brandon Belt from scoring from first base. Then, after intentionally walking Brandon Crawford, Matt Cain shot a hard liner to right field that Jay Bruce snagged. In the fourth, after Hunter Pence reached on an infield chopper, Belt rocketed a line drive that Joey Votto reached up and snared, allowing him to double off Pence. Left fielder Ryan Ludwick, not known for his defense, made a diving catch on Belt’s blooper in the sixth and a running catch on Marco Scutaro's drive over his head in the seventh. Brandon Phillips also saved an extra base by backing up an errant throw on Blanco’s bunt single in the sixth.

Some good plays, a couple at them balls, some heads-up thinking. The Reds ranked fifth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved, so defense like this is no surprise. The one aspect to watch moving forward is Votto’s mobility at first base with his bad knee; normally recognized as a pretty good glove, he had three scoop/reach plays and didn’t come up with any of them. It will be interesting to see if the Giants try a couple bunts on him in Game 2.

Offensively, the Reds rely on home runs, and that’s what they did, with Phillips clocking a hanging curveball from Cain just over the fence in left-center for a two-run shot and Bruce crushing a changeup 436 feet to right-center. Not a lot of balls are hit out in that area of AT&T Park (in fact, AT&T featured the fewest home runs by left-handed batters of any park in the majors). Bruce was my key hitter in the series for the Reds and he went 2-for-4, hitting a double and also a deep fly to center. A good sign for the Reds that he didn’t strike out. The Reds finished third in the NL home runs but just 12th in on-base percentage, so this is typical Reds baseball. When they hit home runs, they win.

As for Cain, he entered with a sterling postseason résumé from 2010, allowing just one unearned run in three starts. He just got beat on a couple bad pitches. Posey set up outside on the curveball to Phillips, but the pitch hung inside. The pitch to Bruce got too much of the middle of the plate.

I didn’t have a problem with Bruce Bochy hitting for Cain when he was due up leading off the bottom of the fifth. Considering the Reds’ bullpen -- it had the best ERA in the majors -- Bochy realized he had to try and generate some offense. The problem is Aubrey Huff and his .192 average (to be, fair, a .326 OBP, so at least he had a chance to draw a walk) was the choice. Other than Todd Frazier for the Reds, however, both teams have pretty weak benches.

One thing Bochy may have to consider is moving Belt up a spot in the order. With the Reds starting four right-handers, why not move Belt and his .380 OBP up to the fifth spot? (Or, arguably, ahead of Posey and moving Pablo Sandoval down to fifth). Belt had solid at-bats all night, drawing two walks. Pence may provide a veteran presence but he’s been terrible since coming over to the Giants, hitting .219/.287/.384.

The Giants made things interesting in the final two innings. Trailing 3-1 in the eighth, they got two on with two outs against Jonathan Broxton but Blanco took a 3-2 pitch on the low outside corner for strike three.

In the ninth, despite now leading 5-1, Baker brought on Aroldis Chapman. Remember, Chapman didn’t pitch for 11 days in mid-September and he hasn’t pitched in back-to-back games since returning. Why burn him with a four-run lead? The Reds had solid relievers in J.J. Hoover and Jose Arredondo available. As is, Chapman was wild enough to walk two guys, wild pitch in a run and allow likely NL MVP Posey to come up as the tying run with two outs. He finally struck him out on a high 100-mph fastball, but it took Chapman 28 pitches to get through the inning. It’s potentially a long postseason; now Baker has to wonder if Chapman will respond if needed on Sunday.

Obviously, the Giants don’t want to head back to Cincinnati down two games, so the pressure is on Madison Bumgarner to deliver a gem in Game 2, facing Arroyo. But the best news for the Reds: As of now, they believe Cueto will be OK to start Game 3.