Saturday, July 9, 2011

Smart move

That wasn't the Bridge Over the River Kwai that Bud Black asked Mat Latos to build last night at Dodger Stadium in the eighth inning. Awaiting were three Dodgers who'd hit as many home runs this year as the team's batboy. The weather was pleasant and Latos in good form. It didn't work out, the Dodgers pecking out the run that they turned into the 1-0 victory, but Pepe Negro's decision to stay with his would-be hoss made great sense. Even more, the decision to trust and test the Tattoed One was the best part of the game.

(You won't get an argument here if you found something else more interesting; West Coast Bias, truth to tell, found this diamond version of Friday Night Lights tedious, despite the close score.  In fact, he doesn't recall most of it, choosing to save his memory capacity for episodes of The Wire and football's Friday Night Lights.)

The thinking on Latos: Sometime in his career in a game of  great importance, he may have to master fatigue and stress late in a similar tightrope walk. He'll know better how to do it, thanks in part to the eighth inning last night. More, please.

The pitch count fascists don't have an argument. Latos had thrown 94 pitches and it was a pretty easy 94. Nor did Latos set off any alarms the inning before, clocking in at 93 mph and striking out one of the few decent Dodgers hitters, .316-batting Aaron Miles for the final out. With Latos in mid-season form -- maybe because it's mid-season -- the conditions were swell for Latos to pursue three more outs.

Sure, his fastball wasn't as hot as it was. That's part of the test -- at times, your better starting pitcher needs to know how to get outs with less fastball and the game on the line. It's pretty hard to win a division or a pennant, let alone a World Series, by removing your starter every time he faces such a test. Why not have Latos develop those skills now with the Padres going nowhere?

Next time he's that far along, he might manage the fatigue and stress better. Not that he made big mistakes in the eighth, but his 0-2 slider to the first hitter -- .222-batting A.J. Ellis -- was hittable enough that Ellis lined it past Jason Bartlett for a single. After a sacrifice bunt, Latos fell behind Tony Gwynn Jr. and threw a decent belt-high fastball, and Gwynn got enough of it for a single to right field. With men on the corners now, Latos could've escaped with a doubleplay groundball, and he nearly induced one with an 0-1 slider to Rafael Furcal but the three-hopper went to right field.

If Latos is ticked off that he didn't get through the eighth, so much the better. His pitch-count creep has discouraged Black from asking him to work deep more often than not. Once this year, he completed an eighth inning, keeping the score tied against the Cardinals, and the Padres rewarded him with two runs in the home eighth.

Latos should be able to work deep into games. The dross that passes for major league lineups these days is part of the sell, not to mention Petco National Park, National League rules and Latos having four pitches that can be above average. Great that the Padres have a bullpen that get the final six or nine or 12 outs -- but if Latos is to become a frontline pitcher, late-inning tests are part of the deal.

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