The Cincinnati Reds gave up three quality players to acquire Mat Latos in the offseason, and he's proceeded to make general manager Walt Jocketty's bold move pay off.
After playing a key role in Cincinnati's division-clinching victory, Latos looks to win his fourth straight decision Thursday as he faces the visiting Milwaukee Brewers, who are barely hanging on in the playoff chase.
Jocketty sent former 17-game winner Edinson Volquez and promising youngsters Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal to San Diego in exchange for the right-hander on Dec. 17, hoping to bolster a starting rotation that underachieved in 2011.
Latos (13-4, 3.60 ERA) hasn't disappointed, helping Cincinnati post a 3.43 ERA that ranks fourth in the majors.
He had one of his best starts of the year Saturday, holding the Los Angeles Dodgers to six hits over eight innings in a 6-0 win as the Reds (93-62) clinched their second NL Central title in three seasons.
"I thought it was the best I've looked all year," Latos told the team's official website. "I'm still an ugly cat, but I still thought I pitched great. I feel good and I'm excited. I'm ready for the playoffs."
Latos, who is 3-0 with a 2.52 ERA over his last five outings - with the Reds winning each time - may have pitched even better in a 3-1 victory over the Brewers on June 25. He allowed only a homer to Norichika Aoki and three other hits while striking out a career-high 13 in one of his two complete games this season.
He allowed one run and three hits in seven innings Aug. 8 at Miller Park before the Reds fell 3-2 to the Brewers (80-75), who are still holding out hope for a return the playoffs after beating Cincinnati 8-1 on Wednesday.
The defending Central champions have won 26 of 35 to climb back into playoff race, but are 3 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the NL's second wild card.
Ryan Braun hit his 41st homer and Aoki - 0 for 13 over his previous three games - went 3 for 4 with a solo shot in the third. Braun is hitting .413 with two homers and four doubles over his last 12.
"We're playing really good,'' manager Ron Roenicke said. "At this point where we've put ourselves, unfortunately we need help from somebody. But if we continue to play well, it gives us a chance that somebody can get hot and come in and beat (St. Louis).
"At this point, they're all critical games."
Zack Cozart and Joey Votto combined for four of the six hits for the Reds, who are still playing without manager Dusty Baker as he recovers from a stroke.
"I don't know why we're not getting hits. Maybe it's because we made the playoffs, but we need to wake up," said Brandon Phillips, who went 0 for 5. "We're just not getting it done right now."
They'll look to bounce back against Milwaukee starter Wily Peralta, who is coming off a rough outing.
Peralta (2-1, 3.04) allowed three runs and walked four while surrendering five hits in only 2 2-3 innings of a 10-4 loss at Washington on Saturday. It was in stark contrast to his previous start, when the right-hander gave up two hits in eight innings of a 3-0 win over the Mets on Sept. 16.
The rookie has yet to face the Reds, who have won six of the teams' eight meetings in Cincinnati this season.