Senior Baseball Columnist

Latos comes to the rescue when Reds need a savior more than ever

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Think Mat Latos minded pitching on such short notice? 'I'd pitch in no socks if I had to.' (US Presswire)  
Think Mat Latos minded pitching on such short notice? 'I'd pitch in no socks if I had to.' (US Presswire)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- No socks, no spikes, no problem.

This will not go into the books as a save for Mat Latos. But the Reds will tell you it was one of their biggest saves of the season.

"Awesome," Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "It was exciting to see."

"Perfect," first baseman Joey Votto added.

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"The guts Mat Latos showed ... man, that was incredible," reliever Sam LeCure exclaimed.

Latos was in the dugout when Johnny Cueto dialed 911 just eight pitches into Game 1 of the Division Series here Sunday, all business casual. He was wearing a gray Reds hoodie. Running shoes. Those little anklet socks favored by runners.

Then Cueto fired his eighth pitch of the game, sort of staggered off the mound and made a dramatic sideways swipe motion with his hand toward the Reds' dugout as if he was a film director hollering, "Cut!"

And practically before their dramatic 5-2 thriller had started, manager Dusty Baker was forced to abandon script and call for rewrite.

Back spasms. Talk about throwing a wrench into the best-laid plans. Back spasms? Really? Right now?

The Reds were the only rotation in the game immune to that sort of stuff this season. Not one of their five starters missed a turn all summer. Cueto, Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake were more dependable than your friendly neighborhood U.S. postman. Through rain, sleet, snow and hail ... and April, May, June and July, the Reds established a franchise record by using only five starters through their first 120 games.

Only reason that total rose to six all season was because they needed to spot someone into an Aug. 18 day/night doubleheader. So Todd Redmond made his major-league debut. That was the only game of 162 started by someone other than Cincinnati's featured quintet. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that 120-game streak was the Reds' longest to begin a season since 1898.

Back spasms.

"Honestly, he was nasty even though he was a little hurt," Hanigan said. "He was throwing strikes by guys."

Cueto zipped a 2-2 fastball past leadoff man Angel Pagan for a called third strike to start the game. His fastball was humming along at 94 mph or so, with movement. He jumped ahead of the second hitter, Marco Scutaro, 0 and 2. But it was on that second pitch that all hell broke loose and sent the Reds scrambling.

Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price came to the mound. The game was eight pitches old. It was the craziest thing. The Reds had barely settled into their dugout. The bullpen was still as empty as the bullpens back home at Great American Ballpark.

"Bryan came off the mound, and I saw him giving this," said LeCure, making a motion to massage his bearded chin with his right hand. "And I'm the only idiot with a big beard."

Into the game he went. LeCure dug the Reds out of that first inning by inducing two ground balls, then successfully crossed a second-inning tightrope when, after loading the bases with two out, he got a fly ball out of Matt Cain.

By now, Latos was warming -- after volunteering with the eagerness of a teacher's pet sitting in the front row in class.

"Bryan asked, could I go?" Latos said. "And I said, 'Yes, a million percent, yes. I'm ready to go."

With LeCure due to bat second in the top of the third, in the bullpen, Latos started throwing harder.

"I told Mat, 'Hey, this will be legendary stuff,'" said LeCure, who was removed for a pinch-hitter -- starter Homer Bailey -- in the third. "Not everyone knew he had thrown a side session earlier, and worked out."

Because it was the third day after his last start, Latos, indeed, had thrown his regular between-starts bullpen session earlier in the day. Because he reduces his throwing late in the season, he still had plenty of energy left.

"Today, I was just working on keeping the ball down, and on my changeup," Latos said. "I wasn't throwing max effort, I was only throwing 60, 70 percent."

As the man said, it's not every day a 24-year-old gets a chance to pitch in a Game 1. He was in, all in, if the Reds needed him.

As for the Reds. ...

"We worked too hard to get this opportunity," Price said. "To think one tough break would end our season ... I don't think anybody thought that."

You know what some of them were thinking? They were thinking about July. Like Saturday night, that was another moment when the Reds could have become reductive instead of resilient. When Votto went down for two months with a knee injury. But they didn't.

Instead, they went 32-16 without their most important player, the best record in the majors during that time, and increased their NL Central lead from 1 game to 8 ½ games. During one stretch without Votto, these Reds won 22 of 25 games.

No, they don't shrink from challenges like knee injuries ... or back spasms.

"I was thinking that," Votto said. "The comment I made when I was hurt was, a good team doesn't lose one player and all of a sudden collapse. Johnny is our ace. He's our best pitcher. It is a big deal losing him.

"But you know what?"

Absolutely we know what. These Redlegs don't melt. They didn't produce the second-best record in the majors because of luck and good fortune.

No, what they showed the Giants in Game 1 is that San Francisco is in for an alley fight.

Not one of Latos' 105 big-league appearances before Saturday had been in relief. All were starts. He slipped on his spikes, but didn't bother changing his socks. No stirrups, no big deal. He threw four innings, surrendered only one run (Buster Posey's homer to lead off the sixth) and turned things over to, statistically, the game's best bullpen.

"I'd pitch in no socks if I had to," he said.

San Diego's 11th-round pick in 2006, Latos was recommended to the Padres, ironically, by scout Joe Bochy, brother of Giants manager Bruce. Latos has been a major thorn in the Giants' side ever since. In six career starts at AT&T Park, he's 2-2 with a 1.67 ERA.

The Reds acquired him in a blockbuster deal last winter, another savvy move by general manager Walt Jocketty.

"I pitch real well here," Latos said. "I told Johnny up here getting stretched out, 'It's OK, don't worry about it. I got it."

Did he ever. And not only did he not get the save ... he didn't even get the win. LeCure did.

"Sam, I thought, threw fantastically," Votto said. "For him to come out like that ... guys usually aren't ready in the first or second inning, especially after just one quick out and just two more pitches. He was just fantastic.

"And Mat randomly being asked to pick up Sam ... that was an impressive performance."

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