Entering their National League Divisional Series on October 6 against the San Francisco Giants, the Cincinnati Reds had to be pretty confident that their pitching rotation was in fine order. After all, the Reds clinched their playoff spot way back on September 20 and were able to use the extra time to make sure that their arms were healthy and aligned the way that manager Dusty Baker wanted. As a Reds fan, I was able to sit back and enjoy the melee that unfolded in the American League without worrying too much about my team. All of that comfort and smugness evaporated in less than an inning on Saturday night when ace Johnny Cueto left the game after eight pitches with back spasms.
After recording one out and throwing a strike to the second batter he faced, Cueto was stopped in his tracks by the pain in his back, and manager Dusty Baker was forced to lift his best pitcher. Mat Latos came to the rescue, throwing four innings of one-run relief, but that performance throws a serious wrench into the plan that called for Latos to start Game 3. If Cueto can make it back in full force by that time (October 9), then he would presumably start and order would be restored for Cincinnati. But the whole situation is uncertain at this point, and you can never really count on a pitcher's health, particularly in the case of a relatively diminutive (5'10") workhorse like Cueto after he threw a team-high 217 innings in 2012.
So, while the Reds did manage to win this game, 5-2, in Cueto's absence, they may have set themselves up for some trouble down the road. The worst case scenario would see them lose on Sunday in San Francisco and still not have Cueto ready for Tuesday's game in Cincinnati. At that point, Baker would have to decide whether to push Latos on short rest or fall out to Homer Bailey, which probably wouldn't be such a huge difference. If you look at the stat lines of Latos, Bailey and Bronson Arroyo from this season, leaving off their names, you might have difficulty determining who is who.
And that is really where the potential precariousness of the Reds' rotation comes into stark view. Their preferred five-man rotation made an almost unbelievable 161 out of a possible 162 starts in 2012, which is pretty much unheard of in this era. That's truly awesome, but it means there isn't much recent starting experience among the other pitchers on the staff, and that lack of depth could pose a problem sometime this month. If everyone else stays healthy, I still like the Reds' chances, though.
If Cueto comes back at full-force, soon, then I really like their chances. String pitching is a wonderful commodity during the playoffs, and the Reds have had it in surplus so far in 2012.
Adam Hughes was raised, and still lives, in rural Indiana. He has been a Cincinnati Reds fan since the early 1980s, when gods like Dan Driessen and Cesar Cedeno roamed the ethereally green Riverfront turf. He thinks that Dusty Baker is the anti-Davey.