At 22, Latos showing maturity on mound for Padres
In the middle of a pennant race in sunny San Diego, 22-year-old Padres ace Mat Latos thinks back to a cold December day in Virginia.
He and his younger cousin, Josh Branick, were hanging out at Latos' parents' house, watching a movie. Latos remembers the snow piling up outside, his two dogs at his feet and the lights shining on the Christmas tree.
More importantly, he remembers what his cousin told him: 'God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason - you can listen twice as much as you talk.''
An only child, Latos said he considers Branick to be like a brother. Once considered abrasive and hotheaded on the mound, Latos took his cousin's words to heart.
In a sign of how he's matured, Latos went nearly five months between bad starts.
When the Padres were going great, Latos was going great. When the Padres struggled, well, Latos was still going great.
He was so good for so long that he even set a major league record, making 15 straight starts of five or more innings with two or fewer runs allowed.
That streak ended Sunday when Latos and the Padres were roughed up 6-1 by the San Francisco Giants to see their lead in the NL West cut to less than a percentage point.
Still, Latos didn't get upset. The Padres were technically still in first place and he'd done something no other big league pitcher ever has.
''It wakes you up to a whole different aspect of baseball,'' Latos said. ''To be able to have that kind of success for such a long time, you're bound to have a bad one and it makes you appreciate the little things more.''
Just like the words of wisdom from his cousin.
''I thought about it. It's one of life's little lessons that you never really look at.'' said Latos, who was 21 when he made his big league debut on July 19, 2009. ''I just thought about it and this year, I just vowed to walk into spring training and just sit back, take a deep breath and enjoy what was happening in front of me.''
He listened to new teammate Jon Garland, and to returning veterans Chris Young, Heath Bell and Adrian Gonzalez. Manager Bud Black, too.
''Buddy's No. 1 thing for me was me being reliable,'' said the hard-throwing Latos, who is 6-foot-6, 225 pounds. ''He's not asking me to go out and strike out 15 batters a game. He's not asking me to go out and give him eight innings every game. He's not asking me to go out there and throw zeros every time, or have a zero ERA. He's not asking me for very much. He's just asking me to be reliable. And that's in my hands. That's the biggest part of my maturity.''
Latos has pitched so well this year that some fans feel he at least merits inclusion in Cy Young Award talk. He's 14-6, and until Sunday led the majors in ERA, which went from 2.21 to 2.43. He has 174 strikeouts in 166 2-3 innings.
Until Sunday, his worst start had been on April 26, when he gave up seven runs in just 2 2-3 innings in a loss at Florida. He then went six starts without allowing more than two runs before giving up three runs in a 3-2 loss at Philadelphia on June 4. His record streak began June 10 against the New York Mets.
Latos' teammates mention his maturity. Black sees an energetic, fun-loving player who works hard in between starts and is all business on the mound.
Latos at 22 is different than he was at 21 - and definitely more so than when he was 19.
''I had some issues. Demons if you want to call them, I've heard that plenty of times,'' said Latos, who was taken in the 11th round of the 2006 draft and signed in 2007. ''Maturity issues. I think it's partially my fault, partially people's opinion on me. I had a maturity issue, don't get me wrong. I was 19 years old. You know, sorry that I was 19. That's the only thing that I can really say.''
Latos has learned to channel those demons.
''I guess you could say I learned to breathe through my eyelids, if you want to call it that,'' Latos said.
In the past, he'd have excuses.
''Now, you know what, I just threw a pitch, I made the mistake and he wound up hitting it. Why am I getting mad at someone else, when if I don't make that mistake, maybe he doesn't hit it? It's kind of a better outlook on things, and life in general.''
Bell remembers chewing out Latos a few times last year for ''annoying'' rookie behavior. Now, Bell notices maturity.
''He wants to be the best pitcher he can be, and he's realized that he can learn a lot of things from other people who aren't as good as he is but have more time in the big leagues,'' Bell said. ''I like the guy. I really do. I think he's going to be one of the best in the game for years to come. I think he definitely has a bright future.''
Latos has boundless energy. He loves to shag fly balls during batting practice, although Black asked him to ease up on trying to rob teammates of home runs so he won't crash into the wall. He tries to catch as many ceremonial first pitches as he can. ''I get to meet a lot of good people,'' Latos said. He's caught Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, war veterans, and UFC and MMA fighters.
''I came that close to catching Manny Pacquiao,'' Latos said. ''Mike Adams, man, he pulled senior rank.''
Baseball is such a passion that before going to his first big league camp, Latos had the curving seams of a ball tattooed across his left wrist and forearm. He chews gum vigorously while pitching, to keep in a calm rhythm. He's taken to mumbling to himself after making a bad pitch, to the point that plate umpire Hunter Wendlestedt wondered last week whether Latos was mumbling at him. Latos explained that he was simply mad at himself.
''He's got a unique personality,'' Black said. ''He's got a lot of energy. We'd never want to take that away from him. In the course of the day, you can channel that into some positives. I'm OK with him being himself and doing his thing, but what I like is that when it's time to work, he works.''