SAN FRANCISCO -- Five thoughts as the four League Division Series swing into high gear ...
1. How about Mat Latos? He had never pitched on three days rest, had not pitched in relief since playing for Fort Wayne in Class A ball, had never pitched in the postseason and already had thrown a light bullpen session before the game. But when Cincinnati's ace, Johnny Cueto, had to check out of NLDS Game 1 with back spasms Saturday night, not only did Latos step forward to pitch, he also gave the Rds the four solid innings that gave them a stranglehold on this series -- stealing Game 1 while still holding homefield advantage.
Teams just do not win these games -- not when they lose their ace after one hitter and a fire drill breaks out in the bullpen. Indeed, the Reds became the first team to win a National League playoff game while getting just one out from its starting pitcher. It's happened only four times overall, and not since 1998 (Cleveland in the ALDS), 1964 (St. Louis in the World Series), 1925 (Pittsburgh in the World Series) and 1924 (Washington in the World Series).
"You can either use it as an excuse if you don't succeed," said Reds pitching coach Brian Price about Latos' emergency relief appearance, "or you can use it as a reason to succeed."
After Sam LeCure picked up five huge outs to buy time for Latos to get ready, Latos, greeted by the usual boos at AT&T Park, came up big on a night when he showed up at the park prepared only to sit on the bench and watch.
"He likes the negative energy," Price said. "He feeds off it."
The postseason can end quickly for some teams this time of year. The Rangers and Braves are out already and now the Giants, just nine innings in, already face a must-win game in Game 2 tonight. They cannot hope to sweep three games in Cincinnati.
2. If you are the Yankees or Orioles you begin rooting for the Athletics today. After watching Tigers ace Justin Verlander shut down Oakland in ALDS Game 1, you need to root for the Athletics to extend the series long enough to force the Tigers to use Verlander a second time, rather than having him fresh and lined up to start the ALCS. Let's face it, if you could pick any pitcher to start a postseason game right now you would be missing the obvious choice if you said anybody but Verlander.
Verlander once again proved he is the best closer among starting pitchers. He plowed his way through 121 pitches and gave up one run -- none after the first hitter. Nobody had thrown that many pitches in an LDS opener in the past nine years. Letting Verlander get through the series without another start would be reminiscent of the Yankees sweeping the Twins in 2009, sparing CC Sabathia of a second LDS start. Instead, Sabathia started three of the Yankees first seven postseason games that year -- and the Yankees won all three of those starts on their way to winning the World Series. Sometimes the LCS can be won or lost by how the LDS plays out.
Verlander puts up extraordinary numbers, but this one may best define his ability to put away teams: After Verlander passed the 100-pitch mark in his regular season starts, batters hit .130 with no home runs while striking out 37 percent of their plate appearances. That, folks, is ridiculous.
3. One more thought about the infield fly call in that Atlanta wild-card game. The six-man umpiring crew may be more trouble than it's worth. Umpires don't work the foul line all year, and suddenly in the most important games they are getting perspectives on plays that are totally foreign. Why is the leftfield umpire, Sam Holbrook, making an infield fly call? As someone stationed in the outfield, the umpire may regard a pop fly as not deep because it is coming toward him, not going away from him.
There is a long history of outfield umpires butchering plays: Richie Garcia on the Derek Jeter/Jeffrey Maier home run, Phil Cuzzi on the Joe Mauer foul ball "double," Tim Welke getting in the way of Jermaine Dye catching a flyball that opened the door for the great comeback win by the 1996 Yankees, and now Holbrook and the "Outfield Fly" rule.
Holbrook has the rule on his side; in his judgment the ball required only "ordinary effort" by Pete Kozma to be caught. It was not a horrible call. It was a judgment call. But maybe what we should be asking is why he was out there.
I get it: it's 50 percent more postseason paychecks for umpires. I don't have a problem with assigning six umpires to a series. But put two of them in the booth as replay officials. Once you use the Hawkeye-style technology to determine fair or foul, including home runs, we don't need umpires on the foul lines.
4. What's a nice manager like Terry Francona doing in Cleveland? The Indians managing job is a bad job right now. The organization is bereft of top-tier talent. There is no indication a windfall of regional television money (the winning lottery ticket for teams these days) is coming any time soon. So why would a two-time World Series winner take this job? Since the day he walked out of Boston, Francona has been eager to dive into another job, and the Indians provide not just a job but also the chance to work for executives he knows well and, as an adviser, has worked with before (president Mark Shapiro and GM Chris Antonetti).
Where else could he get a team from the start of spring training? He's not going back to Boston and he's not a fit in Toronto if John Farrell leaves (and that's far from a given). Even if Miami opens up, the Marlins are not paying superstar money to two managers. Colorado may or may not keep Jim Tracy, but the Rockies are just the Indians with a front office Francona doesn't know.
It's a great hire for the Indians and especially for Antonetti, who needs to get this hire right to maintain his job security. What pick could possibly be safer than Francona? It's a great fit: the Indians needed Francona and Francona needed the Indians.
5. The Reds-Matt Cain connection. Jay Bruce never had hit a home run in San Francisco until he connected for one off Matt Cain in NLCS Game 1. ... Speaking of Cain, only twice has he allowed two home runs in a home start this year -- and both times came against the Reds. Mike Leake and Zack Cozart took him deep June 29, and Brandon Phillips and Bruce got him last night . . . The Cardinals are now 5-0 in postseason elimination games the past two years -- and they trailed in four of them . . . Here is Chipper Jones, not a big fan of the new wild card, win-or-go-home format (and hours before his Braves were bounced): "Why not just invite all 30 teams to the tournament? Make it single-elimination. The Astros might take out the Yankees in the first round. You never know what can happen in one game." . . . I'll say it again: homefield advantage in the postseason is overrated. With the Rangers and Braves losing Friday, home teams are now 8-12 when both teams face elimination since 2002. In this postseason, home teams are off to a 1-3 start . . . The Rangers suddenly have become a franchise loaded with negativity that is hard to shake. The World Series Game 6 and 7 blown leads, the collapse at the hands of Oakland for the West Division title, and now losing to Joe Saunders and the Orioles in their own park and the booing of Josh Hamilton. How's this for a bad ending to a season: The Rangers lost their final four games, watching the other team celebrate on the field and pop champagne three times in those four games (Oakland twice and Baltimore once).