Mat Latos one of NL's most vital players

June, 26, 2012
6/26/12
12:05
AM ET
Mat Latos has a lot going on in his windup. He starts with his hands down at his belt buckle, raises his glove and pitching hand up near the bill of his cap behind his right ear as he steps into the pitch, and has a little flick with his left foot as he pushes off the rubber, landing with a stiff front leg.

At 6-foot-6, 235 pounds and possessing a mid-90s fastball and sharp-breaking slider, he can be an intimidating presence on the mound as he goes through that delivery, the kind of pitcher right-handed hitters don't exactly love to face.

Presence is one thing; results are another. On Monday night, the Reds finally got a glimpse of the results they expected to see when they acquired Latos in the offseason from the Padres.

On a beautiful 80-degree night in Cincinnati, Latos pitched perhaps the best game of his career, a complete-game four-hitter in the Reds' 3-1 victory over the Brewers. Latos struck out a career-high 13 in a dominating performance, perhaps leaving Reds fans wondering: Where has this guy been all season?

Latos entered the game with a 5-2 record, but with a 5.20 ERA. After holding hitters to a .233 average in 2011 and .217 in 2010 during his first two full seasons with the Padres, batters had roughed him up for a .274 average. He had one game where he allowed eight runs, two where he allowed seven. And this wasn't simply a case of being unlucky with a lot of bloopers and flares: He'd allowed 16 home runs, third-most in the National League, and 23 doubles, tied for fifth-most.

Left-handers, in particular, had been pounding his fastball, hitting .321 and slugging .623 against it. Latos' approach is to try and get ahead with the fastball and use his slider, curveball or changeup as his knockout pitch, the slider being his most effective strikeout option. But he has to get to that point in the count.

Chomping ferociously on his gum between pitches, Latos had everything clicking on this night. He struck out Ryan Braun three times, twice on high fastballs and then in the eighth inning on three straight sliders -- an 87-mph pitch with a hard downward bite that Braun fouled; an 89-mph slider on the outside corner that Braun swung through; and then an 88-mph slider off the plate that Braun futilely waved at.

That was the final out of the eighth and with Latos at 98 pitches and the Reds holding a 2-1 lead, Aroldis Chapman began warming up in the Cincinnati bullpen. Whether because the Reds added an insurance run in the bottom of the inning or because Dusty Baker figured Chapman had picked up four losses in his past seven appearances, Latos was back out there in the ninth.

He cruised through an 11-pitch inning to finish off his second career complete game. He threw a lethal 1-1 slider to Rickie Weeks that was unhittable, breaking like it fell off the ledge off a cliff, and then finished Weeks off with another slider out of the zone.

"It's an amazing feeling to finally do something good after the trade," Latos said after the game.

Is this a turn-the-corner game for Latos? Hard to say. After his last start, when the Indians pounded him for eight hits and three home runs in four innings, he hinted the Indians were stealing signs. "I was a little up in the zone. I thought I made some good pitches that they spit on with a runner on second base," Latos said after the game. “When you go back and look at video, a couple runners on second base, they put better swings on the ball than they did most of the time without a runner on second base."

Hmm. Of course, lefties have been pounding Latos all season and the Indians have some good left-handed hitters, so I'm a little dubious about that excuse. The Brewers, meanwhile, are the perfect matchup for Latos, considering they have no left-handed power. The only lefties in Monday's lineup were Norichika Aoki, who homered on a meaty fastball down the middle in the sixth, Nyjer Morgan and Cesar Izturis. Not exactly murderer's row there.

Still, as Latos punched his glove one, two, three times after the victory, you wonder if maybe this is the kind of start that can send a pitcher on a roll. I think there's little doubt that Latos is one of the most important players in the NL. The Reds have a legit ace in Johnny Cueto, who is in the running to start the All-Star Game, and they need Latos to step up as that solid No. 2 guy.

Some may point out that Latos' struggles are the result of switching from spacious Petco Park to The Great American Ball Park and its smaller dimensions. I'm not sure that's the case. He has allowed 12 home runs in 59.1 innings at home; but he's allowed five in 29 innings on the road. His road his ERA in six starts this season is 7.45. And during his three years in San Diego, his home run splits weren't extreme -- 17 home runs allowed in 184.1 innings at home, 22 home runs allowed in 243.1 innings on the road. His home run-to-fly ball percentage is high at 16 percent, and after studying his heat maps, his fastball location seems pretty identical to last year, so it's hard to say how if it's a matter of bad luck, pitch sequencing or sign stealing.

Whatever the cause, the Reds need to hope Latos found a solution Monday night. Dusty has enough other problems to sift through -- finding a reliable No. 2 hitter, figuring out if Scott Rolen has anything left in the tank, deciding who to play in left field and who to catch, wondering what's wrong with Chapman, debating how long to leave Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey in games -- without worrying about his No. 2 starter.

In other words, this team needs a few more dependable players than just Cueto, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. If Latos becomes that guy, the Reds may prove tough to beat in the NL Central.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Brooks ConradPeter G. Aiken/US PresswireWho needs dancing shoes when you're as light on your feet as Brooks Conrad?

David Schoenfield | email

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