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Giants vs. Reds: How Johnny Cueto's Injury May Actually Be SF's Downfall

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 06:  Johnny Cueto #47 of the Cincinnati Reds leaves the game in the first inning against the San Francisco Giants during Game One of the National League Division Series at AT&T Park on October 6, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 18, 2016

Let's face it. It was probably just a matter of time before a Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher got hurt. When it comes to starters, the kind of luck the Reds enjoyed this season simply doesn't last for very long.

They were probably just hoping their luck would run out in spring training or something. Not Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants. On the road, no less.

Star right-hander Johnny Cueto, a 19-game winner in the regular season, left his start in Game 1 against the Giants at AT&T Park after throwing only eight pitches. He was overcome by back spasms, and at the time it was easy to entertain the notion that the Reds were categorically doomed. Surely they wouldn't be able to win without Cueto.

Except they did. Convincingly, to boot, beating the Giants by the final of 5-2. Mat Latos helped rescue the Reds with four solid innings of relief, and they got homers from Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. The only runs the Giants came up with arrived courtesy of a Buster Posey solo homer and an Aroldis Chapman wild pitch.

But now comes the interesting part. While the Reds will take the Game 1 victory without any complaints, the question now is what they're going to do with their pitching in the games to come. Cueto's injury threw their best-laid plans for a loop.

Here's the thing, though: This question won't necessarily cost Reds manager Dusty Baker any sleep at night. He'll ponder his pitching plans not with a sense of dread, but with a sense of optimism.

Strangely enough, Cueto's injury might just work to Cincinnati's advantage.

During TBS's telecast of Game 1, Tom Verducci noted (via CBSSports.com) that Reds general manager Walt Jocketty isn't stressing Cueto's back problems all that much. In fact, if Cueto's back stops barking, he could return to start Game 3 in Cincinnati on Tuesday. For the Reds, that would be just aces.

Remember, in choosing to start Bronson Arroyo in Game 2 and Latos in Game 3, the plan for the Reds was to try to capitalize on Arroyo's solid road ERA and Latos' solid home ERA. If Cueto starts Game 3, it will be like nothing ever happened because he also pitches quite well at Great American Ballpark. In 14 starts at Cincinnati's home digs, Cueto posted a 2.79 ERA and held opponents to a .656 OPS.

This is to say nothing of the fact that Cueto is, you know, pretty good regardless of where he's pitching.

As for Latos, there's a chance that he could start Game 4 on Wednesday if the series lasts that long. He'd be pitching on three days of rest, but that may be enough seeing as how Latos only had to throw 57 pitches in his four innings on Saturday night.

It's a shame for the Giants that he didn't throw more than that, as they're in no real hurry to face Latos again. Not including his performance on Saturday night, Latos has a career 2.19 ERA against the Giants, and that comes complete with an opponents' OPS of .529. He showed on Saturday night that he still has the Giants pretty deep in his back pocket.

And now the Giants are looking at the prospect of having to face him twice in the same series, whereas before they would have only faced him once. Worse, they could be facing Latos at a venue where he has a 3.18 ERA, and the pitcher tasked with beating him could be Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito or Ryan Vogelsong.

All three of them are very much beatable. 

It's either that, or Bruce Bochy could bring Matt Cain back on three days' rest to face Latos in Game 4. But unless Baseball-Reference.com is lying to me, starting on three days of rest is something Cain has never done before in his career.

In other words, if this series even gets to Game 4, there's no pitching matchup the Giants could conjure that would give them the advantage if Baker does indeed tab Latos to start.

Granted, maybe Baker wouldn't tab Latos for Game 4. Maybe he'd start Homer Bailey instead. Seeing as how Bailey posted a 5.16 ERA with an opponents' OPS of .874 at Great American Ballpark this year, that's a matchup that would favor the Giants, right?

Not exactly. Bailey struggled at home this year, to be sure, but he's not a guy anybody should be pining to face right now. Bailey compiled a 1.85 ERA and an opponents' OPS of .463 over his final seven starts, one of which was a no-hitter. He morphed into a completely different pitcher once August turned into September.

So go ahead and take a moment to put yourself in the Giants' shoes and take stock of the situation. 

You just lost a game that was started by staff ace Matt Cain in which the other's team ace was limited to only eight pitches. That's not good.

On Sunday, you're starting a pitcher in Madison Bumgarner who had a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on in the last six weeks of the season. If he doesn't have his best stuff, the Giants could easily fall victim to a pitcher in Arroyo who was quite strong on the road this year.

Win or lose, you're going to have your work cut out for you when the series shifts to Cincinnati, as the Reds could conceivably pitch their two aces in Games 3 and 4, or one of their aces in Game 3 and a guy who has been on fire lately in Game 4. If Baker chooses Option B, then he'll be able to start an ace in Game 5 if the series lasts that long.

It was already debatable whether the Giants had any sort of pitching edge when this series began. If Cueto's health checks out and he starts Game 3 for the Reds, whatever pitching edge the Giants may have had once upon a time will have gone "Poof!" 

This didn't have to be the case. Had the Giants capitalized on Cueto's injury by scoring a victory in Game 1, we'd be sitting here talking about how the pressure is now all on the Reds.

But the Giants lost, and what a frustrating loss it was. Their defeat at the hands of the Reds came complete with too many at 'em balls, too many fly balls that just didn't have the distance, and a few too many stray pitches (looking in your direction, Santiago Casilla).

Through it all, the Giants had to be well aware that they were letting a golden opportunity go to waste.

The Giants know that things just didn't go their way on Saturday night, but they also know they can only make so many excuses. Worse, they know that the pressure is all on them now. 

As for the Reds, all they have to do is hope that Cueto gets a clean bill of health between now and Tuesday. If he does, they'll be able to keep the champagne close by when the series shifts to Cincinnati.

For the time being, Latos, Phillips, Bruce and the rest of the Reds can pat themselves on the back for not letting the Giants have the chance they were given.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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