Dusty Baker Makes All the Right Moves

When Johnny Cueto exited stage left after striking out lead-off hitter Angel Pagan, the prevailing sentiment concerning the Cincinnati Reds was that they were in big trouble. Their staff ace had just left an enormous, tone-setting playoff game with back spasms, which meant that Cincinnati’s excellent bullpen would have to carry a large load, which can be unsettling going forward. You never want to waste bullets when you don’t have to, and the Reds were going to have to use a majority of their bullets. To make matters even worse, opposing Cueto on the bump was Giants’ ace Matt Cain, the owner of a 16-5 record, a 2.79 ERA, and a perfect game. Things couldn’t possibly have appeared any worse for the Reds, that is, until Dusty Baker decided to show the world what he has learned over the past couple of seasons.

Dusty Baker has been, for all intents and purposes, the butt of many a cruel managerial joke dating back to the collapse of the Chicago Cubs in 2003. Is your team’s manager burning up his starting pitchers by having them throw too many pitches? He’s pulling a Dusty. Did he wait too long to turn to his bullpen, only to see a lead go up in smoke? Call it a Dusty. Baker earned this reputation for the way in which he burned out two prodigious, young strikeout machines: Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Prior threw 234.2 innings of dazzling baseball as a 22-year-old in 2003 after never throwing more than 170 professional innings in his career. He predictably blew his arm out and is still trying to work his way back to the Major Leagues, this time as a middle reliever.

It’s a similar story with Kerry Wood as well, although he was able to successfully moonlight as a near-elite closer for plenty of seasons. Baker never could quite figure out a relief combination that worked for him, and instead he opted to stick with his starters, which had a tendency to burn him. Baker’s Cubs never sniffed the playoffs again, and he was unceremoniously dumped after a last place finish in 2006.

Dusty then landed in Cincinnati two seasons later (2008), where the team took its lumps for a couple of yearss before the manager helped the Reds to an NL Central title in 2010 and a first round playoff exit. Baker appeared to be adjusting as a manager however. Gone were the 120 pitch outings by a starter that plagued his Chicago pitching staffs. The 50-60 inning jumps in workload were also on their way out the door as well. In 2012, and older, wiser Baker finally put it all together, leading the talented Reds to a 97-win season, good for 2nd in the National League. Cincinnati entered the 2012 postseason with a real shot at winning their first title since 1992, and on Saturday night, with the chips stacked against him, Baker displayed why.

After Cueto went down just 8 pitches into his outing, Baker immediately made the wise move and turned to relief pitcher Sam LeCure. Some fans may have been wondering why Baker didn’t immediately turn to a back of the rotation starter like Mike Leake, but LeCure was the right call. Starters need time to get warmed up and tend to dislike entering a game in the middle of an inning, whereas relievers can be ready in the time it takes to zap a bag of popcorn and are adept at entering the game in big situations, whenever needed. LeCure (3.14 ERA in 57.1 innings with 61 K’s) came in and got the job done, getting the Reds through the first two innings unscathed while giving a starter plenty of time to get loose.

The starter Dusty Baker chose was none other than Mat Latos, who was working on 3 days rest. The former Padre entered the game to a chorus of boos and then proceeded to shut everybody up, pitching 4 frames of baseball while allowing just one run, a Buster Posey solo homer. Latos looked very strong and  located all of his pitches well, throwing strikes on 68% of his offerings. Baker was able to keep his pitch count in check, and he removed Latos from the game going into the 7th inning, thus keeping the Reds bullpen fresh for the rest of the series. Three innings of normal relief work from Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton, and Aroldis Chapman, and the Reds had a 1-0 series lead.

Using Latos in relief during what would normally be his throw day, which is the day between starts where a pitcher fires off about 75 pitches at about 80-90% intensity, was a stroke of genius by Baker. The move not only won the first game of the series for Cincinnati, but it had the bonus effect of setting up the Reds rotation in a more favorable way the rest of the series because they can now give Mat Latos another start. And that’s a good thing, because Latos has a 2.19 ERA against the Giants in 78 career innings while holding their hitters to a miserable .203 batting average.

Baker was able to make the absolute best of a bad situation, and it’s all due to managing a bit outside the box, which was unthinkable for Dusty a decade ago. If the Reds are somehow able to steal Game 2, when Bronson Arroyo toes the rubber against Madison Bumgarner, this series will be all but over heading back to Cincinnati, where Latos, the flaming-hot Homer Bailey (1.85 ERA in his last 7 starts), and Johnny Cueto will all potentially wait. It may not be how the Reds drew it up, but they’ve got to love the position they are in, and it’s all thanks to some deft managing by Dusty Baker and some clutch pitching by Sam LeCure and Mat Latos.

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