Latos steps to mound and delivers… again

CINCINNATI – Dusty Baker isn’t ready to dub Mat Latos as a “big game” pitcher quite yet.

“Almost,” said the Reds’ manager. “He’s on his way. He’s getting better.”

Latos was pretty good Saturday night as the Reds beat St. Louis 4-2 at Great American Ball Park, limiting the best hitting club in the Major Leagues to two runs on seven hits over seven innings. It was the Reds’ third win of the season against St. Louis in eight games, all of which have been games started by Latos. After giving up single runs in the second and third innings as the Cardinals took a 2-1 lead, Latos shut them down on three hits over his final four innings before turning things over to the bullpen combination of Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman.

Latos improved to 6-0 on the season and could be even better if not for four blown saves after he’s left games. He hasn’t had a losing decision in his last 20 starts, going back to Aug. 24 of last year when St. Louis beat him and the Reds 8-5. The Reds are 10-3 in games he’s started this season and are 33-13 in his starts since they acquired him two offseasons ago in a trade with San Diego.

Sounds pretty big game, doesn’t it?

“‘Big game boy’ goes a little deeper into games. That’s why I said almost,” said Baker, clarifying his belief. “He’s better than when we first got him and he can still get better.”

It was just the fourth time in his 13 starts this season that Latos completed at least seven innings, but with the Reds on a three-game losing streak they were need of a big game from Latos. The necessity was heightened by 12-4 and 9-2 Reds losses in their previous two tilts against Colorado on Wednesday and St. Louis on Friday

And a big game is exactly what they got. 

The Reds have beaten the Cardinals the last four times Latos has started against them, but that recent success hasn’t always been the case. In four of his first six career starts against them, including three starts while with the Padres, Latos didn’t get out of the sixth inning and allowed at least seven runs and eight hits.

“That’s a great lineup. That’s not a tough lineup, that’s a great lineup,” Latos said. “They used to kick the crap out of me pretty good. This year I’ve adjusted to them as they adjust to pitchers throughout the season. That has been key; always adjusting, to watching video and watching to see what they’re doing in their approach and adjusting to that, and then try to make them adjust to what I’m doing.”

The Cardinals had 12 straight innings against the Reds in which they had at least one runner on base, beginning with their three-run fourth inning on Friday, until Latos put them down in order in his final inning of work Saturday. They scored runs in six of the first nine of those innings and had runners in scoring position in eight of the first nine innings of that stretch.

Latos got help from the defense — Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce made catches of deep drives by Yadier Molina and David Freese in the sixth inning, while shortstop Zack Cozart got Shane Robinson with a strong throw from deep in the hole and Joey Votto did his best Brandon Phillips imitation with a behind-the-back flip to Latos covering first base against Matt Carpenter in the seventh — but out on the mound Latos confidently challenged the St. Louis batting order.

For all of the horror stories of pitching in GABP, Latos hasn’t succumbed to them. He has a career ERA of 3.02 at GABP, covering more than 178 innings, which is the lowest of any pitcher with at least 10 starts at the stadium.

“I think with the stuff that he has, he has full confidence in going out there and if he executes a pitch he’s going to have a very good opportunity to get the guy out,” said catcher Devin Mesoraco. “It’s good to see that he has that mentality where he’s just going to go out there and get after the guys, but I don’t think the ballpark has anything to do with it. That’s just Mat. He’s very high quality pitcher and he knows it. He can go out there and try to make as many pitches as he can and at the end of the day he’s going to do pretty well.”

Baker said Latos has followed a mental approach that has made Johnny Cueto and Bronson Arroyo successful at home, but the same could be said of all of the Reds’ starters. None of the five regular rotation pitchers has an ERA greater than 3.20 at GABP this season.

“I’d say probably concentration,” Latos said. “San Diego is a big ballpark so I can go in there and flip sliders down the middle, I can pitch up in the zone and get away with it for the most part. Here you can’t do that. I concentrate on keeping the ball down, mixing in the breaking stuff. You have to concentrate. You can’t have one lapse. You have one lapse and then it’s three- or four-to-nothing already.”