Each time he takes the mound, Mat Latos(notes) bends, plants a finger in the dirt and scribbles his grandfather's initials, "RMH." Each time he throws a pitch, his shoulder sneaks out of his shirt a little and reveals a tattoo – a sky above a scroll above a bed of roses that contains those same letters.
On the day Roger Marshall Hudspeth died, he insisted that his 12-year-old grandson play in a baseball tournament rather than stay by his side. That is Latos' final and fondest memory of his grandfather, a humble man who put others before himself and relished the thought of his grandson succeeding on the mound.
Flash forward 10 years, and Latos is the premier pitcher for a surprising San Diego Padres club barreling toward the postseason. Flash back three years, and he was a cocky 19-year-old junior college pitcher convinced he was ready for the majors.
"I'd probably beat the crap out of 19-year-old me," Latos said. "I'd probably hate myself too. But I've learned."
He had been a first-round talent in high school but fell to the Padres in the 11th round of the 2006 draft because, a source said, he was demanding an unrealistic bonus and already was exhibiting an unseemly arrogance. He pitched for Broward (Fla.) junior college the following spring and signed with the Padres for $1.25 million a week before the 2007 draft. As he climbed through the minor leagues, Latos got away with his me-first attitude until he collided with Padres roving pitching instructor Mike Couchee.
"It was almost like we wanted to fistfight each other sometimes," Latos said, "but he never gave up on me."
After a poor bullpen session one day, Latos and Couchee bickered until Couchee decided he’d had enough. He asked Latos if he would be mouthing off like this to Padres manager Bud Black. Latos said no. "Then grow up," Latos remembers Couchee telling him, "and go about your business as if you were in the majors."
"A light turned on," Latos said. "I decided to quit acting like I was 16 years old."
The conversation became a key step in the long process of Latos' maturation. When he was called up to the Padres in July 2009, he still had attitude issues. He was quick to confront veterans and was one of the loudest guys in the clubhouse, a know-it-all. In 10 starts last season, he was decidedly average, going 4-5 with a 4.62 ERA in 50 2/3 innings.
He demanded the attention of veterans but ignored their advice.
"Last year it was, 'Look at me, listen to what I have to say,' " Paders closer Heath Bell(notes) said. "Between the coaches and the players – I know I yelled at him a couple of times – we talked to him. This season, he's done such a great job of listening."
Latos, 22, has been the Padres’ best starter all year. He leads the team in wins (12), ERA (2.36) and strikeouts (125); he also leads baseball with a .191 opponents batting average and is second to Cliff Lee(notes) with a .256 opponents on-base percentage.
Most importantly, the first-place Padres are 9-1 during his last 10 starts.
Part of Latos' improvement has come from technical changes to his delivery and the development of a slider and curveball to complement his heat. Primarily, though, the improvement is due to an attitude overhaul. It’s difficult for any 21-year-old thrust into the majors, especially one who needed to grow up some.
The Padres are ideal for someone of Latos' temperament. San Diego is a quiet media town, and the team is led by the low-key Black, baseball's only pitcher-turned-manager. The veteran pitchers – especially Bell, Jon Garland(notes) and Chris Young – didn't dismiss Latos after his early failings, but instead helped him develop.
From Garland, Latos learned patience, to let the game come to him. From Young, Latos learned to attack hitters relentlessly. And from Bell, Latos learned to trust in and rely on his teammates. All that wisdom combined with his talent transformed Latos into one of the best pitchers in the league.
"He's a good listener," Black said. "And more importantly, now he's good at applying what he's told."
In the end, there wasn't just one moment when Latos finally understood what it meant to be a pro. It was a process, beginning with the humble example of his grandfather and continuing with Couchee's challenge and the callouts from colleagues.
When he reported to spring training this season, everyone could see he had matured. He was seen but not heard. He would quietly approach other pitchers for advice and listen in on their conversations to absorb knowledge.
"When you look at him now, he's not selfish," Bell said. "He's very humble. Sometimes you just get caught in that stuff as a young pitcher. He was that way last year, and he got called out and now he's gotten better. Now he's one of the best pitchers in the big leagues that no one knows about – and that's fine with us."
Soon enough, everyone will know about Latos – and they'll know about his arm, not his mouth. He has always honored his grandfather's wish to continue to play, but now he also honors Roger Marshall Hudspeth with his humility.