SAN FRANCISCO -- Brandon Phillips didn't bother with the stoicism expected of professional athletes. He wouldn't pretend that he expected everything to work out for the Reds when Johnny Cueto had to exit the mound just eight pitches into Saturday night's NLDS Game 1 against the Giants.
“When Johnny went down, I was like, ‘Gosh, oh no, we're done. Why? Why?’” the second baseman said.
The grim faces in the Reds' dugout sent the same message. The team that hadn't won a postseason game in 17 years, that had absorbed a no-hitter in its most recent playoff opener, started seeing ghosts.
They probably should be unnerved even now, after a sound beating of Matt Cain, the Giants' best pitcher, and a 5-2 win on the road. Cueto's back spasms meant that the Reds had to burn through Game 3's scheduled starter, Mat Latos, and send another starter, Homer Bailey, up as a pinch-hitter to attempt a sacrifice. But Phillips dissolved Saturday night's grim faces with a two-run homer, two more hits, some resourceful base running and a merry backlash against his initial pessimism.
After the homer, Phillips returned to a dugout in decidedly better spirits. “They know I'm the guy that can get things going, and they knew I was going to have a good game today,” Phillips said before veering into a few seconds of quasi-sheepishness. “They said something about me being on TV and so I'm going to shine. … I do love the TV, though.”
All of a sudden, an array of concerns vanished.
Starting on the road, under this season's temporary 2-3 format that forces the higher seed to wait for its home games, did not thrill manager Dusty Baker. He disliked the arrangement the last time MLB employed the format, when he managed the 1997 Giants and their NL West title earned them a road-trip opener against the wild-card Marlins and a quick 2-0 deficit.
“It doesn't feel like I have home-field advantage at all,” Baker said before Saturday's game. “… You would rather have the 2-2-1 format, but they say that’s next year.”
The Reds also came into this game with an unfortunate distinction. They are the only team in MLB history to open a postseason against a pitcher who had thrown a perfect game that year and then repeat the experience two years later. Roy Halladay started off a Phillies’ sweep in 2010 by gilding his sterling resume with a playoff no-hitter against the Reds. Cain has yet to build Halladay's credentials, but he entrenched his reputation as one of the game's finest young pitchers by keeping the Astros off base on June 13 for the game's 22nd perfect game. He also took a 0.00 postseason ERA over 21.1 innings into Saturday's start. When his Giants won the 2010 World Series, Cain pulled a Curt Schilling, elevating from very good righty to cold-blooded killer.
If the Reds had checked the record of pitchers who reach the postseason after throwing a perfect game, Phillips’ “Why? Why?” might have resonated in the clubhouse before the first hint of Cueto's back trouble.
Of the four before Cain, three had won the World Series after tremendous postseason performances -- David Cone with the 1999 Yankees, 2-0 with a 1.28 ERA; David Wells, 1998 Yankees, 4-0, 1.76 ERA; Koufax, 1965 Dodgers, 2-1, 0.38 ERA. Only Halladay with his no-hitter didn't get a ring, but he still went 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA.
Phillips’ love of TV does not include the many replays of the good Doctor Halladay dissecting the Reds in that 2010 Game 1.
“They show me on TV making the last out, and it kind of sucks,” he said. “But honestly, I'm glad it did happen. … Everything that happened in 2010 was a learning experience, the no-hitter, making errors in the second game, us not coming up clutch.”
Cain did not have optimal control on Saturday, and the Reds’ leadoff hitter gambled on vulnerability during his second plate appearance. “I sat on the curveball the whole at-bat and he left it up,” Phillips said.
He said he had swung at Cain's first pitch, a curve, so over-eagerly that he had a pretty good idea that Cain would be tempted to try it again. He did, and Phillips was ready.
“If he’d thrown me a fastball or cutter, I would have been back in the dugout with everybody else,” Phillips said. “I’m glad he threw me a curveball.”
Mastery of improvisation carried his whole team on Saturday. As it turned out, from the end of Cueto's warmup, the Reds were sitting on the possibility that their ace might not last long. Cueto told the trainer that, on his last two throws in the bullpen, he felt a sharp pain on his right side. When he had to leave so quickly, the chaos in the dugout, where Latos could be seen suddenly doing stretches, worked its way into effective crisis management.
“You got to give big props to Latos,” Baker said. “Here is a guy sitting back, relaxed, thinking he was going to pitch next week at home and now, all of a sudden, boom, this is his first playoff game.”
Latos, who vexed the Giants as a Padre, threw four innings and allowed one run. His Game 3 appearance was carefully arranged by Baker to take advantage of his strikeout skills in the Cincinnati ballpark, which yields homers a lot more easily than the Giants' yard. Now that plan has been shredded, and while Cueto said he felt much better, it’s not clear whether he can come back in the series.
But Saturday’s game shut down “Why, Why?” All of the other questions now seem a little easier to answer.