Eventually, you’re all going to get sick of me talking about how everything that’s going on now is for all intents and purposes unpredictable. Hopefully you aren’t sick of it yet, because Game 1 of the NLDS between the Reds and the Giants went to show why playoff predictions are a complete waste of time. Allow me to review the action:
(1)Ace Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto had to be removed after eight pitches due to injury, but
(2) the Reds still beat the Giants 5-2 on Saturday, because
(3) they hit two home runs off Matt Cain in AT&T Park.
It would’ve made perfect sense for this to turn into a pitcher’s duel. Cueto is one of the better starting pitchers in the National League, Cain is one of the better starting pitchers in the National League, neither the Reds nor the Giants have amazing team offenses, and AT&T Park suppresses run scoring like it’s poisonous and AT&T Park doesn’t want people to get poisoned. Instead, Cain was passable for five innings, and Cueto barely pitched. There still weren’t a whole lot of runs, but this didn’t go the way it was supposed to go.
The top of the first went the way it was supposed to go. Then in the bottom half, Ryan Hanigan signaled for a pitch in the dirt, Cueto threw a high strike, and Cueto came off the mound walking gingerly. It looked then like a back problem or an oblique problem; it was a back problem, and Cueto had to hand the ball over to reliever Sam LeCure. At that instant, watching from a bar with some Giants fans, my only thought was, “holy crap.” Basically, holy crap, that was going to change everything. Ultimately it might not have changed much of anything.
See, Cueto’s uncertain, but he feels all right, and he might be able to start later in the series. He’s just dealing with a back spasm that initially made itself known before the game in the bullpen. Maybe all that happened here was that Cueto and Mat Latos swapped rotation slots. We’ll see how it goes, but obviously things aren’t as bad for the Reds as it looked like they could’ve been with one down in the bottom of the first inning of the series.
The box score shows that LeCure kept the Giants scoreless through the second. It’s true that he did — there isn’t some sort of vast box-score conspiracy set to mislead — but he very nearly did not. With two down in the second, Brandon Belt walked, and Gregor Blanco doubled. LeCure and the Reds made the correct decision to intentionally walk Brandon Crawford in order to face Cain, but then Cain rather liked his first-pitch slider:
With the bases loaded in the second inning of a scoreless game, Matt Cain drilled a line drive to the right-center gap. The line drive was caught on the
run jog, but you know how people have told you before that baseball is a game of inches? Those people might be stupid people, but in that instance, they were not being stupid. Close plays are close to being other plays. Even non-close plays are close to being other plays.
In the second, Matt Cain got burned by some bad luck. In the top of the third, Matt Cain got burned by Matt Cain. Cain was ahead of Brandon Phillips 1-and-2 with a runner on when he made a miserable mistake:
Buster Posey wanted Cain to throw Phillips a breaking ball just off the plate outside. Cain probably thought that was a pretty good idea. The execution was lacking:
That pitch wasn’t hit for a majestic home run — it was just hit for a regular two-run home run. It isn’t that a pitcher absolutely needs to hit his spot every time. There are fine ways to miss. Here, Cain didn’t miss in a fine way, and while sometimes pitchers can escape, the only thing that escaped here was…well you see where I’m going with this.
The 2-0 game turned into a 3-0 game an inning later when Jay Bruce homered to right-center on a low change. There were only 34 home runs hit this season by left-handed batters in AT&T Park. Cain only allowed seven home runs this season in AT&T Park. The one time he allowed two in a game — June 29, against the Reds. But those dingers were hit by Zack Cozart and Mike Leake so I don’t know why I brought that up.
By that point, Mat Latos had replaced Sam LeCure on the mound for the Reds. Latos — originally the Game 3 starter — was given a long time to warm up in the bullpen, and he entered in the third. He struck out only one batter over four innings, generating just three swinging strikes, but then Latos was pitching in an unfamiliar role and also pitching on three days’ rest for the first time in his big-league career. Ever postseason we talk about pitcher effectiveness on three days’ rest and every postseason we observe that three days’ rest seems to make pitchers worse. Latos did not look his sharpest, but he was ultimately sharp enough.
He did luck out on a line-drive double play in the bottom of the fourth. With one on and none out, Brandon Belt sent a screamer right into the waiting glove of Joey Votto. Later, Latos surrendered a leadoff dinger to Buster Posey in the bottom of the sixth, but that just turned 3-0 into 3-1 and the Reds were able to hand a lead over to their top three relievers.
Jonathan Broxton threw maybe the most significant pitch over those final three innings. It was at least maybe the most flawless pitch. It was still 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth, and the Giants had two out and runners on first and second. This is the fastball that Broxton threw to Gregor Blanco in a full count:
There was not a thing that Blanco realistically could have done with that pitch. I suppose it was close enough that you could argue it should’ve been a ball, and then the Giants would’ve had the bases loaded, but (A) it sure seems like a strike, and (B) as with Friday’s controversial infield fly, even if you reverse the call, the odds are still stacked against the hitting team anyway.
The top of the ninth saw the Reds add on, and then the bottom of the ninth saw the Giants attempt a desperate rally against Aroldis Chapman‘s wavering control. Chapman allowed a hit, he issued two walks, and he uncorked two wild pitches. In making the final outs, both Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey appeared to be right on Chapman’s heater, and they just missed it. It is a silver lining for the Giants that Chapman appeared vulnerable, because he threw 28 pitches, and because he was a question mark coming in. He still touched triple digits with his fastball, but in his four regular-season appearances after being shut down, he threw just 32 strikes out of 60 pitches. Saturday, he threw 16 strikes out of 28 pitches, and not all of those strikes were in the zone. Chapman might not be as fearsome as his name value.
But it’s a short series, and the Giants can’t take that much solace in the Reds’ closer looking less effective than usual. The Giants had Matt Cain on the mound, at home, in a game in which Johnny Cueto lasted eight pitches, and they lost by three. I’m not saying they didn’t deserve to lose; I’m saying they didn’t seize what looked like a glorious opportunity, and now they have to win three out of four, with just one more game in California.
There’s talk that Cain might be able to return on short rest for a Game 4, since he threw only 75 pitches. Latos, too, since he threw only 57 pitches. Those are possibilities, but it’s less about how many pitches Cain and Latos threw, and more about just the fact that they pitched. Cain and Latos warmed up like starters and taxed their arms, and we don’t need to get into the short-rest discussion again. With most pitchers, it’s generally a good thing to avoid.