John Clay

John Clay: Reds' Game 5 battle cry: Better Latos than never

CINCINNATI — So now it's all up to the 6-foot-6, 24-year-old blond hurler with the tattoos, the sniffles and the wife who won't stay off twitter.

"I feel great," said Mat Latos. "I feel fine."

Pardon his city if its inhabitants are feeling a bit queasy right now. After returning from the Left Coast with an impressive 2-0 lead in this NL Division Series, the Cincinnati Reds now find themselves deadlocked in a 2-2 tie with the San Francisco Giants, thanks to an 8-3 drubbing on Wednesday, with one more chance to deliver the knockout blow.

That would be the decisive Game 5. That would be Thursday. That would be with the Reds putting the baseball in the hand of the talented but a bit flaky Latos, the pitcher for whom Dusty Baker worked his makeshift rotation so the 14-game winner would be pitching on his normal rest for the series' final game. If needed.

He's needed. With the rehab time on Johnny Cueto's strained oblique too tricky to determine, the Reds decided to deactivate their ace from the playoff roster — Cueto cannot now pitch in the NLCS — and activate Mike Leake, the soft-throwing right-hander who had enjoyed success against the Giants during his career.

Not on this day, however. Angel Pagan led off the game by taking Leake over the right-field wall. Gregor Blanco added a two-run shot in the second. The visitors were off and running. The home team never came close to catching up.

Scary stat: Since MLB went to divisional series, 21 National League teams have gotten off to a 2-0 start. Not one blew that lead and lost the series.

"They're here for a reason," said right fielder Jay Bruce of the Giants. "It's 2-2 for a reason."

After all, even though the Reds won the first two in San Francisco, for them the series has been about what happened on those first eight pitches in Game 1 when a grimacing Cueto left the mound after two batters.

When Cincinnati couldn't win Tuesday night to close out the series, losing a 2-1 heartbreaker in 10 innings, you could feel the momentum shift.

So now Baker hands the ball to Latos, acquired from San Diego in the off-season. After his customary slow start, Latos grew stronger as the year progressed, finishing 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA.

After Cueto's unexpected early exit last Saturday, Latos pitched in by throwing four innings of one-run ball on just three days' rest. There were reports that the right-hander was suffering from flu-like symptoms early this week. Latos' wife, Dallas, a constant and entertaining social media presence, tweeted that her husband had not been feeling well since the final series of the regular season. Baker dismissed it as allergies.

"Everything feels fine," Latos reiterated Wednesday night, before adding of Game 5, "It's just another game. It's a team I'm comfortable with, a team I've faced before."

His record against the Giants should make Redsland feel better. Back on April 24, Latos pitched seven innings of shutout baseball against the Giants at Great American Ball Park. On June 30, he threw a complete game at AT&T Park, allowing one run in a 2-1 Reds victory.

"We like our matchup," said Drew Stubbs of Latos. "The way he pitched in Game 1, the way he pitched down the stretch."

Over on the other side, Giants starter Matt Cain is 0-3 against the Reds and 16-3 against the rest of the league. He was 0-2 vs. Cincinnati in the regular season with a 5.54 ERA. He lost this series opener, the game in which Cueto started.

That feels like weeks ago now.

And one more time, Latos says he feels fiine.

"Mat will be fine," said Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan. "You've got to have fun with it. You've got to look at it as you've got a chance to be the hero."