CINCINNATI — What was significant over last weekend when the Cincinnati Reds swept three games from the St. Louis Cardinals was not only that they held the heavy-hitting World Series champions to seven runs.
Adding more significance to the achievement was that it was accomplished with the back end of the starting rotation, the young guys.
Their best pitcher, Johnny Cueto, was not able to take his turn because of a blister on his index finger. Bronson Arroyo, the team’s veteran presence and spiritual sounding board, did not pitch because it wasn’t his turn.
That left it up to the team’s three youngest and most inexperienced starters to face the defending World Series champions — Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey.
And all three pitched as if it was just another glorious spring training day under a hot Arizona sun as the Reds won by 5-3, 3-2 and 4-2. Each starter slapped a strong start on the Cardinals.
“You hope that was a watershed period for those pitchers,” manager Dusty Baker said. “You always want your young pitchers to reach the next level. You just never know when they might reach it. Some never reach it, and some reach it sooner than others.”
In this case, all three were pitching in front of sold-out crowds in Great American Ball Park with the Cardinals doing some heavy breathing down the Reds’ necks.
“It’s nice to see all three reach the level they showed, especially in that series because everybody thought, ‘Man, that was like the playoffs,’ ” Baker said.
When the series ended, the Reds were in first place by one game over the Pittsburgh Pirates and knocked the Cardinals from 1 1/2 back to 4 1/2 back. Mostly, though it was the valuable atmospheric experience those young pitchers received, valuable stuff if the Reds make the playoffs.
“That was a mini-gauge for their emotions,” Baker said. “And it came at midseason. If you are going to go a long ways in the playoffs or to the World Series, you have to get used to the high energy in those kinds of games. You have to put a governor on your emotions. Don’t let the atmosphere and your emotions control you; you have to be able to control them if you are going to perform well.
“That stuff is there, the emotions and adrenaline and pressure. It is really there,” Baker added.
Of the evolution of the Reds’ staff, Baker said, “Getting a good five-man staff who goes out there every day and performs well is what you set out to do when you put things together. (What) we decided when we started assembling this staff was to be patient, take our lumps early and hope they’d come together — learning from each other, from experience, our pitching coach, our catchers, from me, from (hitting coach) Brook Jacoby and from our hitters.
“You know, you can’t be a very good pitcher if you don’t know how hitters think. Isn’t this how it’s supposed to be?”
But it hasn’t been in the recent past. Pitching, particularly starting pitching, has not been a button-popping thing in Cincinnati until Baker arrived and more attention was paid to who throws the ball instead of who swings at the ball.
“Maybe before they didn’t have the talent or the patience,” Baker said. “Before the last four years or so there seemed to be a round-robin on impatience, which is hard to sell to the public. So it was our job to remain patient and see which ones to remain patience with.”
The Reliable Five: Johnny Cueto is 11-5 with a 2.28 ERA; Mat Latos (acquired by trade from San Diego over the winter) is 7-3 with a 4.33 ERA; Bronson Arroyo is 4-6 with a 4.03 ERA and the victim of low offensive support; Homer Bailey is 8-6 with a 3.93 ERA and on a run of good starts; and Mike Leake is 3-6 with a 3.96 ERA and even more of a victim of low offensive backing than Arroyo.
Making matters much easier has been the health and stability of the
rotation. During the first 92 games, the Reds have been able to start
the same five starters — no substitutes, no interlopers.
While the pitching is uplifting, Baker isn’t about to say the finishing touches are on the rotation.
“You’re never satisfied until it’s over,” he said. “Your stuff can go south just as quickly as it can go north, especially when you are dealing with young pitchers. You have to stay on ‘em.”