The club is officially in the playoffs and now has an interesting decision to make.
It comes down to two options: Mat Latos or Homer Bailey.
Assuming the Reds play the Pittsburgh Pirates, neither is a bad option. However, the decision needs to be made by Wednesday. If manager Dusty Baker decides to go with Latos, the ace should take the mound in the series finale against the New York Mets to make sure he is on full rest for next Tuesday's one-game playoff.
Both pitchers went into last weekend with phenomenal records against Pittsburgh in their careers, but neither ended up with pretty lines when they exited their start.
Latos allowed home runs to the first two batters he faced on Friday night and ended the night by allowing four runs in six innings. Bailey, on the other hand, cruised through most his start before struggling with the mound in the sixth inning. The right-hander went 5.2 innings and allowed four runs (two earned) on only three hits. The go-ahead run was set up by a pickoff throw that Joey Votto couldn't handle.
So with a week until the Wild Card Game, who deserves to get the ball?
The case for Mat Latos
There is no denying who has been the Reds' best pitcher over the last two seasons. Latos was a great pickup last season as he went 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA. The 25-year-old has upped his game this season to the tune of 14-6 with a 3.23 ERA. He could very easily have 18 or 19 wins.
Latos saved the Reds in Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS by pitching one-run baseball over four innings after Johnny Cueto left the game after eight pitches (and Sam LeCure pitched until the end of the second). It was a big performance by the man who was supposed to start Game 2. With the season on the line, Latos pitched well early in Game 5 before getting squeezed by the umpire in a tough loss.
Like many pitchers on this staff, Latos has owned the Pirates. Take a look at his career numbers against Pittsburgh:
At PNC Park, he has a 2.87 ERA with a record of 3-0.
Latos has a dominating fastball and can overpower the Pirates. However, he lasted more than six innings only once against the Pirates this season, which cost him a pair of wins as the bullpen blew the game.
Cincinnati needs a starter who can go deep into the game. Latos has averaged over seven innings per start in September, so he has done his job. He just needs to be able to go deep against Pittsburgh.
If Latos gets the nod, Baker must use him on Wednesday instead of saving him for the weekend series against the Pirates. Check out his career numbers based on how long he has had to rest:
|# of days rest||GS||IP||W||L||CG||SHO||ERA||BAA||HR||K||BB|
He has been good either way, but his numbers are better nearly across the board when he has that extra day to rest. The Reds can run out Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto this weekend and feel confident in each game. Cueto is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against the Pirates, and he almost threw a no-hitter there early this season. He also threw a one-hitter at PNC Park a few years ago.
Moving Latos up a day wouldn't hurt the Reds. They'd be replacing him with a guy who has been even better against the Pirates, and it would keep Pittsburgh from facing the ace three times in 11 days. At some point, familiarity favors the hitters.
The biggest issue with pitching Latos in the Wild Card Game would be how the NLDS rotation would unfold. He wouldn't be able to pitch until Game 3 and would be limited to only one start in the series. With another great option for the one-game playoff, wouldn't it be wiser to save the ace for a longer series?
If the Cardinals somehow drop to the Wild Card Game, there is no doubt that Latos will get the ball. He is the only starter who has consistently beaten St. Louis this season.
The case for Homer Bailey
If Baker went with Bailey over Latos in the one-game playoff and the Reds lost, he'd be run out of town. However, the numbers suggest that Bailey would be the better choice.
Bailey has dominated the Pirates throughout his career. Check out his career numbers:
He is 0-2 in three starts against them this year but has not allowed more than three runs in any start.
The 27-year-old routinely shows up in big games. In Game 3 of the 2010 NLDS, he threw two shutout innings in relief to keep his team in the game. Bailey was bumped up a game in last year's NLDS against the San Francisco Giants and took a no-hitter deep into the sixth inning. He ended up allowing one run on one hit as his team lost in extra innings.
Don't forget about how Bailey has matched Clayton Kershaw head-to-head twice this season, including a dominant performance against a great lineup a few Sundays ago on national television.
Oh yeah, Bailey has absolutely filthy stuff. He threw a one-hitter a few years ago at PNC Park. Last year he threw his first no-hitter, which also came in Pittsburgh. He added a second no-hitter at Great American Ball Park back in July.
When Bailey is on top of his game, there are maybe only one or two pitchers in the league better than him.
Starting Bailey against the Pirates in the Wild Card Game would allow Baker to use Latos twice in the NLDS if necessary. It would also set up a nice balance in the rotation between hard- and soft-throwers with Arroyo between Latos and Bailey.
Again, if Bailey was picked over Latos and somehow imploded in the spotlight, Baker would be second-guessed for years.
The manager is going to pick who he thinks gives his team the best chance to win. Whether or not everyone agrees with the call is irrelevant. Baker is going to put his team in a spot to win the game. Getting home-field advantage comes first, so look for Baker to run his best pitchers out there, which would move Latos up to Wednesday instead of allowing Greg Reynolds to pitch in an important game.
As John Fay of The Cincinnati Enquirer reported after the Reds clinched a playoff spot on Monday, Cueto could get some consideration. However, it would be risky to send out a guy who has pitched in only 12 innings, against bad teams, since the end of June in the most important game of the season.
My pick would be Bailey. The star pitcher has filthy stuff and is as dominant as anyone when he is in the spotlight. Also, he has owned the Pirates in his career. It would set the Reds up to have their ace available for Game 1 of the NLDS.
However, the rotation would have to be adjusted to get Bailey on schedule for the start. It's unlikely, which makes the pick Latos. Baker can't go wrong with either pick, but it would be a huge surprise if Cueto got the ball. If the Reds don't win the NL Central, fans should expect Latos to take the mound with the season on the line in the one-game playoff.
*All stats are courtesy of baseball-reference.com