Latos belongs in the NL Cy Young discussion

SAN DIEGO – Patrons and employees at the East Village Tavern and Bowl a few blocks from Petco Park agree on who should win the National League Cy Young Award: the talkative young blond guy who drops by late on nights the Padres are in town, gabbing with the bouncers, eating appetizers and bowling the occasional game – left-handed.

Mat Latos credits his new-found maturity for his turn-around.
(Jason O. Watson/US Presswire)

Mat Latos(notes) pitches with his right hand and won’t jeopardize his health by rolling a 16-pound ball with it. He has grown up enough to know that much. The playoff chances of the reeling San Diego Padres might hinge on his continued ability as a stopper, a pitcher who lifts a sagging team every five days. Latos knows that, too.

As for baseball’s most prestigious pitching award, Latos becomes uncharacteristically humble at its mention.

“Having Cy Young and my name being in the same sentence alone would make my day,” he said. “But it wouldn’t make my year. The passion I show on the mound and the trust and respect I’ve gained from my teammates, the bonds and friendships I’ve made, you can’t trade that for anything.”

Legitimate NL Cy Young candidates are plentiful. Early on it appeared Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) would run away with it when his ERA was under 1.50 through mid-June and he started 15-1. Then Florida’s Josh Johnson(notes) was the leader when his ERA stayed under 2.00 until early August. Adam Wainwright(notes) of the Cardinals became the favorite by mid-August before losing four decisions in a row. Tim Hudson(notes) of the Braves remains on the periphery, although the comeback player of the year award might be a better fit.

Now steady workhorse Roy Halladay(notes) of the resurgent Philadelphia Phillies is at the forefront of any Cy Young handicapping, leading the league in innings, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts.

NL Cy Young Award candidates
Name W-L ERA IP HA SO BB WHIP BA/A
Mat Latos 14-6 2.43 166.2 120 174 45 0.99 .198
Adam Wainwright 18-10 2.38 208.1 163 191 51 1.03 .219
Tim Hudson 15-8 2.62 203.0 167 122 62 1.13 .248
Roy Halladay 18-10 2.44 228.2 212 201 28 1.05 .246
Ubaldo Jimenez 18-6 2.75 196.1 147 186 79 1.15 .212

All are veterans and all but Johnson pitch for playoff contenders. No wonder Latos, who leads the league in ERA and lowest batting average against, is honored to be in the discussion.

“I’m just a 22-year-old kid who wants to compete,” he said. “I thrive off it. I love the energy. I love the atmosphere. I know I’ve matured. I hear it day in and day out from people. It’s great to make those kinds of strides and it keeps me wondering, what am I going to be like in the next five years? How mature? How composed?”

In spring training, Padres manager Bud Black made a simple request of Latos: Be reliable. How is this for a response? In his last start, a seven-inning, 10-strikeout gem against the Dodgers, Latos broke the major league record of 14 consecutive starts of five or more innings with two or fewer runs allowed, a mark held by Greg Maddux(notes) and Mike Scott.

Roy Halladay leads the league in innings, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts.
(Anthony Gruppuso/US Presswire)

Latos’ transformation from an abrasive, immature jerk trying to harness his immense talent to a well-liked, dependable staff ace is a remarkable tale involving a promise to his dying grandfather and a particularly persuasive pitching coach. Another breakthrough came in December when he was home visiting his parents in Virginia. Latos was watching a movie on DVD with his 21-year-old first cousin, Josh Branick. Latos began popping off as usual, and Branick, whom only-child Latos says is as close as a brother, got in his face and asked him if he was ever going to grow up.

“It really sunk in,” Latos said. “I remember every detail. We were watching ‘Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.’ The fireplace was going. I had both of my dogs lying at my feet. The Christmas tree was lit up behind us. I have a deep appreciation for what Josh said. He doesn’t know it yet. I haven’t given him credit.”

Already Latos had made strides. He was so difficult to handle in high school that he fell to the 11th round of the 2006 draft even though scouts throughout baseball agreed he had first-round talent. The current mid-August deadline to sign draftees hadn’t been implemented yet, so the Padres didn’t sign him until he spent a year at Broward Community College. Scout Joe Bochy (brother of Giants manager Bruce Bochy) watched every start and came away convinced he was worth the gamble. The Padres paid Latos $1.25 million a few days before he would have gone back into the 2007 draft.

“Money had quite a bit to do with it, I’m not going to lie,” Latos said. “Joe Bochy expressed a lot of interest in me. I showed a little more maturity than I did in high school and they offered a lot more money.”

Latos’ maturation continued through his rapid ascent through the minor leagues. He stopped yelling at teammates for making errors, stopped snatching at return throws from the catcher when he believed an umpire missed a call, and toned down the self-loathing when he didn’t perform up to his own expectations.

“I learned to breathe through my eyelids,” he said. “When I was younger, I always had an excuse. Now, I throw a pitch and I can accept that I made a mistake and somebody hit it. How can I be mad at somebody else on the field? I’m never going to be perfect, so how can I expect anybody else to be perfect?”

“I still have that hotness in me. There are plenty of times I want to let it out.”

In Latos’ last start, Rafael Furcal(notes) of the Dodgers hit a hanging changeup for an RBI single. As Latos backed up home plate, he unleashed a string of expletives that were overheard by umpire Hunter Wendelstedt.

Wendelstedt: “Were you talking to me or talking to yourself? Because you were freaking me out.”

Latos: “Oh, I was mad at myself. I was talking to myself. I apologize.”

Wendelstedt: “All right.”

Latos goes through a stick of chewing gum every two innings to help him avoid chewing out himself or anyone else. Whatever his methods, they clearly are effective. Before giving up five runs in four innings Sunday, he’d been especially effective against the Giants.

For the most part, Latos has been best against his team’s toughest competition. He’s outdueled Roy Oswalt, Johan Santana and Felix Hernandez. He’s an undisputed ace, and the only reason he hasn’t logged as many innings as Halladay, Jimenez and Wainwright is that the Padres have limited his workload because of his youth.

Despite his belated maturity, Latos is more polished than other heralded pitchers his age: Stephen Strasburg(notes), Clayton Kershaw(notes), Mike Leake(notes) and Trevor Cahill(notes). And for now, he’s the only one whose name belongs in the same sentence as the Cy Young Award.