By Jason Fry
We've assembled some of our favorite baseball writers from around the country to contribute to Sports on Earth each day throughout the postseason.
On Saturday, there were at least a couple of things you could have said about the Reds that would have been regarded as somewhere between conventional wisdom and the real thing.
You could have called the Reds’ starting pitching a Rock of Gibraltar in a sport where most teams’ plans quickly turn into a mess of Plan Bs and Cs. And you would have been right: The Reds got 161 starts from the same five guys, with that 162nd game the second half of a doubleheader.
You also could have said the Reds rely on sound defense. And you would have been right about that, too: Cincinnati was just a hair behind Atlanta for best fielding percentage in the league, with the likes of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart and Ryan Hanigan earning high marks in the field.
And then Game 1 began.
Eight pitches later, Johnny Cueto had been felled by what were initially called back spasms. An ominous sign, but the Reds won anyway, steamrolled the Giants in Game 2, and went into extra innings at Great American Ballpark Tuesday night. But with two out in the 10th, a Hanigan passed ball moved Giants to second and third, and then Scott Rolen – whose mantle probably doesn’t have room for all eight of his Gold Gloves – booted a ball for a run that turned out to be fatal.
Instead of a sweep, the Reds had a problem. Cueto couldn’t start Game 4 – those back spasms were reclassified as a mild oblique strain – so Dusty Baker turned to Mike Leake, the fifth starter with a 4.58 ERA and a penchant for gopher balls. Which removed Cueto from the roster for the rest of the Division Series and the League Championship Series.
Had Leake gone seven innings and handed a lead over to the Reds’ formidable bullpen, he’d be a hero. But he didn’t. His second pitch of the afternoon became a line-drive home run off the bat of Angel Pagan, and in the second inning Gregor Blanco rifled a two-run shot into the left-field stands. Leake’s location was off, and his fastball was sitting in the high 80s – not enough to get it by the Giants’ bats. It was exactly what Reds fans had feared, leaving their minds running a loop of a baseball momentarily and horribly evading Rolen’s grasp.
The best hope of those fans was the other man at work on the mound: Barry Zito, whose time as a Giant has been a slow drift from infuriating free-agent bust to forgotten man to grudgingly accepted member of the team to potentially occasionally useful piece.
Zito wasn’t good either. He couldn’t command his fastball, walking three in a row in the first to force in a run. He made it through the second, but gave up a home run to Ryan Ludwick in the third that left him nursing a decidedly perilous 3-2 lead.
Zito was gone three batters after Ludwick’s blast, having thrown 76 pitches (just 44 for strikes) and somehow given up seven two-out baserunners. George Kontos took over, bailed Zito out of the third, got into trouble in the fourth and was in turn bailed out by Jose Mijares, who fanned Votto, then turned things over to Tim Lincecum, pressed into service with Leake and Cozart on base and Ludwick at the plate.
The Reds’ hitters are equal parts talented and mostly indistinguishable. Brandon Phillips’ incandescence is impossible to miss, yes, and Votto is hulking and imperturbable, his mismatched white and red armbands oddly hypnotizing as he waits coiled at the plate. But if you’re not already a Reds fan, you might be forgiven for saying that Cozart is the guy who looks like Drew Stubbs, who’s the guy who looks like Jay Bruce. Ludwick, though, breaks the pattern: He’s got the rangy, vaguely weathered aspect of an Old West marshal, with a funny stop-start swing and feet in constant motion.
Ludwick faced Lincecum with the game possibly in the balance, and Lincecum erased him on a couple of change-ups that bordered on evil, pitches that Ludwick swung over helplessly before they wound up at his shoetops.
With the Giants temporarily out of danger, the game settled into the kind of exhausting affair that leaves both teams’ fans clutching at talismans. Giants fans were waiting for a reliever to come up empty, for someone’s bad inning to make this the last day of the season. Reds fans had watched Leake gain life on his fastball and look serviceable – but there was the ever-present danger that he would turn back into, well, Mike Leake. Which he did with one out in the fifth, chased by consecutive doubles from grasshopper-legged Joaquin Arias and Pagan.
That bad inning came in the seventh, but it was on the Reds’ side of the ledger: Jose Arredondo entered with the Reds down 5-3 and left dejectedly with his club down 8-3, the last two runs coming on a Pablo Sandoval blast that left the bat on a trajectory generally reserved for Saturn rockets.
But by then the story had been hijacked by a rather unlikely protagonist -- Lincecum. The Giants’ ace turned enigma wound up pitching 4 1/3 innings, giving up no walks and just two hits while striking out six -- the start the Giants had hoped Zito would deliver. Lincecum muzzled the Reds and walked off with the win through one of the easier decisions an official scorer has ever had.
The series now comes down to Thursday, and Meet the Mat(t)s – San Francisco’s Matt Cain, adequate at best in Game 1, opposes Cincinnati’s Mat Latos, last seen in relief of Cueto, when he was the Reds’ desperately needed Lincecum.
Billy Beane famously said his stuff doesn’t work in the playoffs. Which is true – because nobody’s stuff works in the playoffs. What would be a one- or two-day blip during the season, or a problem solved after one awkward turn through the rotation, becomes gigantic and all-encompassing – and, if you’re unlucky, season-swallowing.
After an unlucky streak, Reds fans can take heart that their team hasn’t lost three in a row at home all year. But then those same fans were probably finding hope in their sturdy pitching and solid defense on Saturday, before things started to happen.
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Jason Fry is the co-writer (with Greg Prince) of Faith and Fear in Flushing, the blog for Mets fans who like to read. A writer, editor and journalist consultant, he lives (inevitably) in Brooklyn, N.Y.