SAN FRANCISCO – Seriously, the man just got out of the hospital.
For two days he mused over the beauty of trees and birds and stuff, and of playing ball up on the sandlots at Golden Gate Park, and of being home.
He waved to the crowd and stood for the anthem and handed the ball to his ace, then draped his arms over the dugout rail to see how this would play out, two years after his Cincinnati Reds were swept from the playoffs, 17 years since they’d won a game past the regular season.
Eight pitches later, his ace gave him the ball back. Wouldn’t you know Dusty Baker would have this kind of fight on his hands for 3 ½ hours, from the ninth pitch to the 148th, from Johnny Cueto waving himself off the field to that 100-mile-an-hour heater Aroldis Chapman whisked past Buster Posey to end it.
The dang game is enough without the drama, the theater that comes with not knowing where you’re going to get 26 outs, not now, in a postseason where they’ve stacked the games like those jets loitering over a fogged-in SFO and then handed the first two home games to the lesser seed.
Brandon Phillips, Baker’s effervescent second baseman, saw Cueto surrender to back spasms and could not shut out a notion that spread across AT&T Park and beyond.
“Oh no,” he thought. “We’re done. Why? Why?”
Not against the San Francisco Giants. Not against Matt Cain. Not in Game 1 of a division series that many believe will produce the National League champion.
What it left the Reds with was eight-and-some innings of baseball, of volunteer pitchers and top-step cool and the hope that Cain would put a little something on their bat barrel. They’d won 97 games, some of them as ugly as could be, a lot of them with a bullpen that was best in the league. So there it was.
“All you can really do,” Phillips said, “is just go out there and battle.”
On the far end of the dugout, Mat Latos caught the eye of Bryan Price, his pitching coach. He raised both hands to his shoulders. Sure, he’d thrown a bullpen session that afternoon, and he was scheduled for Game 3, and his spikes were up in the clubhouse. He wanted to pitch.
The fact is, Latos loves it here. He loves the ballpark, the heavy air, the power alleys that stretch to the sea. He even loves the boos, earned over the years because sometimes he just has to say what’s on his mind. So the fans got him good during introductions, which he enjoyed, because in recent trips when their hatred for him had gone, he thought, “Weak.”
In the first minutes of a scoreless game, Latos was told he would pitch. Baker summoned reliever Sam LeCure, asked him to hold it down, and Price told Latos to prepare as he would for a start. Runs come hard and dirty by McCovey Cove, Price knew, so he couldn’t spend long-man Alfredo Simon in a game that could go deep into the night. Who would pitch into extra innings Saturday night? Who would go long on Sunday?
The game would belong to Latos, the funky kid with the tattoos and nervy countenance, the 14-game winner who breathed in the cat-calls and spat out sliders.
“You know what, what else are you going to do?” Price said. “We worked too hard to think one tough break is going to wreck our season.”
By the time he’d dashed to the clubhouse, stretched and focused and tied on his spikes, Latos came out of the dugout with a 2-0 lead. Phillips had sat on a curveball and launched a home run to left field. LeCure had been brilliant for five outs.
Latos got the next 12. Posey got him for a home run, but otherwise Latos pitched around and through a Giants lineup that had been among the most ferocious in the league for months. He brushed past Baker on the top step four times, each time returning with a lead, each time pushing the game toward what has been a shutdown bullpen – from Sean Marshall to Jonathan Broxton to Chapman.
“It wasn’t any surprise,” Latos said afterward, “other than me pitching.”
They’d gotten the Phillips home run, and a Jay Bruce home run, and a couple runs in the ninth the Giants would regret. They’d played exceptional defense. And they’d forced the Giants into a catch-up game that is not their style. But the evening belonged to Latos.
“I couldn’t be more impressed,” Price said.
The Reds would win, 5-2. Broxton was imprecise. Chapman was flat-out wild. But they had five runs, and those would be enough, and when Baker went to the mound in the ninth inning to check in on Chapman, you just knew he’d had enough of the theater for one day.
It was late. It was cold. The mist was coming and the seagulls were waiting for the ballpark to clear. The crowd chanted for Posey, the shouts of “MVP! MVP!” circling right along with the birds. One swing and this night might never end.
So Baker stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and he trudged to the mound.
“I just told him a couple things,” Baker said. “In Spanish. I don’t recall what I told him, but I was making up something as I was going along.”
The Reds are up, one game to none. They’ve done what they came here to do, and that is to take one win – at least – home to Cincinnati. Maybe Chapman needed some perspective. Maybe Dusty told him about the trees and birds and stuff.
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