SAN FRANCISCO -- It has been said that in chaos there is opportunity, but that doesn't make chaos any more comforting when it strikes.
Eight pitches into Reds' ace Johnny Cueto's start Saturday in Game 1 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati faced the kind of disorder no team anticipates. Cueto began having back spasms, forcing him to exit the game having retired only a single batter. In the regimented world of playoff baseball, with set pitching matches and clearly defined bullpen roles, this meant that the Reds' plan for the series was, in essence, tossed into McCovey Cove.
"When Johnny went down, I was like, gosh, oh no, we are done. Why? Why?" said Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips.
It was a sentiment that swept across AT&T Park. With Cueto out, the Giants would surely take Game 1 behind ace Matt Cain. They would also tax the Reds pitching staff to a degree that would surely hinder them going forward. But Dusty Baker, Cincinnati's manager, did a rewrite on the fly, a script that not only resulted in a 5-2 Reds' victory, their first playoff win in 17 years, but it may also have given Cincinnati an edge beyond their 1-0 series lead.
Baker's rewrite was hurried and makeshift, centering on Mat Latos, the scheduled Game 3 starter. Baker brought in Sam LeCure, using him to get through the second inning, which allowed Latos to get warm. "Here is [Latos] sitting back, relaxed thinking he was going to pitch next week at home and now all of sudden, boom, he's in his first playoff game," Baker says
After LeCure gave up only one hit in 1 2/3 innings of work, Latos pitched four innings, allowing only four hits and one run, a Buster Posey home run in the sixth. Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton each followed with a scoreless inning before Aroldis Chapman gave up a run in the ninth.
It was a disjointed game -- Baker used three starting pitchers in the first two innings, as Homey Bailey also appeared as pinch hitter -- but the Reds still got the result they coveted. "It wasn't planned like this," Baker said. "But we were fortunate enough to win."
For the Giants, the game and the Reds' first-inning chaos will stand as an opportunity lost. They squandered scoring chances (0-for-5 with runners in scoring position) and allowed the Reds bullpen to emerge soundly going forward.
Although the Giants preached calm and put up a good front in interviews after the game, you can bet a bowl of Skyline Chili that they know the chance they missed, and how few of those a team gets in the postseason. The last time the Giants lost Game 1 and came back to win a postseason series was the 1921 World Series versus the New York Yankees.
That factoid probably overstates the direness of the Giants' predicament, but so much of San Francisco's 2010 run to the World Series had the feel of fate, and in Game 1 that vibe was nonexistent. It started with starter Matt Cain, he of the 21 1/3 scoreless innings during the 2010 postseason. In five innings of work Saturday, Cain allowed five hits and two home runs, a two-run shot by Phillips in the third inning and a solo homer in the fourth inning by Jay Bruce. It was only the second time in two years that Cain has allowed two home runs in the same game at AT&T Park. Coincidentally, the other time was also against the Reds earlier this year.
Watching Cain give up those shots was deflating for the crowd, and certainly for a team accustomed to seeing their ace dominate. The Giants played as if the breaks were destined to go against them, and for the most part they did.
The kismet was entirely in the opposing dugout. The all-hand-on-deck success of the Reds bullpen; Phillips athletic fielding and clever base running; Play after play that thwarted Giants rallies. The Reds seized the opportunity that the first-inning chaos presented, got the win, and now have to like how their starting pitching could potentially line up later in the series
If Cueto's back spasms subside in time, he could start Game 3 in Cincinnati. Then Latos, who allowed only one run in 16 innings versus the Giants during the regular season, would be ready to start Game 4 if the series goes that far.
Neither Baker nor Cueto could say if a Game 4 start was a certainty, but Cueto said after the game that the spasms had died down and he feels as if he can pitch again in the series. That is problematic for the Giants. They avoided the Reds ace, only to lose the game, and now seem likely to face a rested Cueto in a later game when the stakes are even higher, followed by Latos.
To start the series it looked as if San Francisco would face Latos only once. Now, they'll see him twice and, perhaps, Cueto in Game 4. It would pit the Reds two best pitchers against the Giants unsettled back end, some combination of Barry Zito, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong.
That may be looking too far ahead. As Cain said: "We'll see what [Sunday] brings." And he is right. Madison Bumgarner going against Bronson Arroyo = edges Giants. But for now, the Reds have a 1-0 series lead and, if Cueto heals quickly, the Reds have an edge in the matchups that they didn't when Saturday started.
That guarantees nothing, but it does reflect which team whiffed at the opportunity and which seized it.