Fourteen and One-Half Minutes

One quarter of an hour didn’t just doom a season. It may have been opportunity lost for the Walt Jocketty Era in Cincinnati.

I’m thinking it can happen at any moment. Picture yourself standing on the dock, everything stretched out before you all the way to the horizon. One moment you have the key in your hand. The next, it’s slipping through your fingers, falling into the gap between the weatherbeaten planks. Before you know it, it’s gone, and everything the key represents rushing out to sea with it.

.  .  .

I’m thinking about Mat Latos again because the Washington Nationals have just picked him up on their way to the postseason. If George Grande were here, he’d tell you that Mat Latos hasn’t been living on the smilin’ side of scoreboard for some time. Now, if he’s lucky, really lucky, he gets a second chance for himself, an opportunity to make personal amends for those fourteen and one-half minutes that undid a Reds season four long years ago. But, as a certain manager might say, “how does that help the Reds?”

And this has me thinking of Dusty Baker again and the almost unforgivable choices he made during the 2012 NLDS. And ALL THAT has me thinking about what the Reds should do about Bryan Price.

Go ahead. State your case: he’s mismanaged his bullpen; he’s mismanaged the entire Brandon Phillips situation, from where he’s batting in the lineup to whether he should be batting at all. He made a fool of himself nationally before ever fully settling into the manager’s chair. Remember his lieutenant—Steve Smith— waving runners around third with all the discretion of a Walmart greeter hailing eager shoppers?

And yet …

Metrics folks talk about statistical noise. There’s more noise in Bryan Price’s managerial tenure than there is on the runways at O’Hare over Thanksgiving. He was handed a team that won 187 games the previous two seasons. By the time his first team left Arizona in 2014, he had eight important players on the DL. Joey Votto would miss 100 games that season. His number 2 and 3 starters would battle injuries on and off for most of the year. His closer fielded a ball with his face in spring training and would miss two months. With all that, Price’s walking wounded were only a game and a half out of first place at the All Star break. By September, setup man Jonathan Broxton was gone and the Reds were signaling they were ready to start closing the window on the current iteration of the Reds.

The real sell-off began later and with each move and all those free agent pitchers graduating to big city markets seemingly all at once—the Reds got real bad real quick. The Reds had one accomplished pitcher left and he succumbed to what is essentially baseball’s ebola virus—the Tommy John Flu. With Homer Bailey quarantined for 14 months or more, you would swear Price was running guys out to the mound who weeks earlier were on the street outside GABP wearing sandwich boards that said “WILL PITCH FOR FOOD.”

Which is all a roundabout way of saying Bryan Price has been given straw and asked to build a house, so naturally, what you get is a straw house. Nobody’s seen Bryan Price manage with talent, so no one really knows what he’s capable of doing. Nevertheless, his third year is ending the way his first year began: doing a lot with less.

I’ve watched Joe Maddon leave Jason Heyward in the meat of the order for a long time with some pretty horrible numbers. I’ve watched most managers in baseball slot their relievers into roles, just like Price. I don’t really worry about what Price will do with the next good bullpen. The next GM, Dick Williams, can easily look up I-71 and see what Terry Francona is doing with Andrew Miller. If he’s as sabermetrically inclined as we think he his, he and his manager can figure out how to get Raisel Iglesias more than 70 innings.

No, what worries me is what kind of manager Price will be in the big moments. Dusty Baker didn’t fail because he batted Zack Cozart and his poor OBP in the 2-hole all season. After all, metrics tell us the difference between the optimal lineup and the most poorly constructed one imaginable is 1.5 to 2 games, max. No, what doomed Baker was his inability to widen his baseball horizons. Decades of baseball experience as a player and manager had taught him everything he needed to know—or so he thought.  That led to Todd Frazier riding the bench while fading veteran Scott Rolen got “one last rodeo.” It led to Aroldis Chapman becoming a non-factor during a postseason that desperately needed another arm with Johnny Cueto down for the count. Most vividly, it resulted in fourteen and one-half minutes of dereliction of duty, as his best remaining starter lost his mind on the mound while 44,000 in attendance and millions at home watched.

Bryan Price knows pitching. The Reds have a lot of young promising pitching looking for guidance. The question is, is Price up to the big moment. Follow the timeline below and tell me what Price would have done had he held the reins on that beautiful summer day in October.

If you know the answer to that, you know whether he should lead the next good Reds team—or not. That’s what the Reds need to find out about Bryan Price, if they haven’t already.

.  .  .

Game 5 entered the 5th inning scoreless, but the wheels were about to come off.

When Latos missed inside on the third pitch of the inning to leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco, he stared at the umpire with a “you got to be kidding me” look, and snatched the ball out of the air from catcher Ryan Hanigan. Latos’ body language suggested a petulant, oversugared child. It seemed a switch had been thrown in Mat’s head. Blanco shot a pitch the other way for a base hit and the announcing crew were already talking about Latos’ noted composure issues when they cranked up a between innings dugout interview with pitching coach Bryan Price.

“I imagine you figured out he’s pretty intense… He’s locked in right now. The thing is, right now he’s been able to maintain his emotions and continue to make good, quality pitches … he’s a guy who wants the ball in a huge game.”

Keep that “maintain his emotions” line in the back of your brain. As Brandon Crawford approached the dish, umpire Tom Hallion walked out in front of home plate to deliver the ball and a message to Latos — cool it. In Mat’s defense, his next two pitches to Crawford appeared to catch the black according FoxTrax—but Hallion called each a ball. And with each throw back from Hanigan, Latos’ body language betrayed his mental meltdown more and more.

Latos was all over the place now with his offerings, overthrowing, jawing angrily on the mound to nobody in particular, and just generally looking disgusted with the preceedings. Color man Ron Darling was blunt:

“Latos is a pitcher, who in the past, has suffered from some maturity problems. And coming over here [Cincinnati], Bryan Price — one of the best pitching coaches in baseball — those are some of the things he has worked with Mat on. You can see him, every pitch, becoming an issue now here in the 5th.”

As Darling finished his commentary, Crawford tripled, plating Blanco with the game’s first run.

One out later, Angel Pagan stood at the plate, and Latos still visibly struggling with his composure. It was at this point—a full 7 minutes into Mat’s meltdown — that Hanigan decided the time might be appropriate for a visit to his pitcher. One pitch later, Pagan chopped an easy out to rookie shortstop Zack Cozart. Only, Cozart bobbled the play, allowing Crawford to score from third. Latos, who had already went down on one knee to get out of the way of a Cozart throw home, dramatically held the pose, laying one arm over the other as if to say, “Why is this happening to me?

Four aimless pitches later, Marco Scutaro took his base. Two on, one out, for Sandoval—the man who had nailed shut the Reds’ coffin just days earlier.

It was now a full 9 minutes in from the first moment it was clear Latos was losing it. Finally, Dusty Baker — always famously slow on the uptake— sent Price to the mound with an impossible task—put out the fire currently consuming Mat Vesuvius. Latos just stood there the whole visit, unflinching, shaking his head and grinning like a madman, repeatedly mouthing the words to Price, “I’m fine, man.”

As usual when those three words are uttered, the person speaking them was anything but.

Pablo Sandoval stroked a single. Bases loaded. National League MVP Buster Posey stepped in for the Giants, and Latos had nowhere to put him. Latos continued to overthrow his pitches, but battled the MVP to a 2–2 count.

Here was the moment. The 45,000 in attendance were anxiously subdued, probably remembering the rocket Posey had launched into the seats on the first pitch he saw from Latos back in Game 1.

If Dusty Baker remembered it, he wasn’t acknowledging it. One pitch later, history repeated itself as the Giants’ superstar relocated a 94 mph Latos’ fastball to the left field seats. Almost as soon as the ball left the barrel of Posey’s bat, Mat walked off the mound without turning to witness the ball’s trajectory. If he flinched, the television camera from center field never caught it. Game over. Series over.

Elimination games have never kind to Dusty Baker. Not when he was managing the Giants in 2002, not later when he skippered the Chicago Cubs, and certainly not with the Reds. When urgency and intensity were the order of the day, Baker always seemed to fall back into his natural laid-back persona — the polar opposite of his young hurler. In fairness, Baker had suffered a mini-stroke a month earlier. But even before that, he was never the fiery type or a man given to outburst. One would be hard pressed to remember a time he was tossed by an umpire. Baker’s a man of reason and nuance. He’s a ship that turns very slowly, if he turns at all.

The top of the 5th inning had moved at a glacial pace. From the moment Latos first registered his displeasure with umpire Hallion, to the moment Posey drove a stake in the heart of Reds fans everywhere, fourteen and one half minutes would tick away in real time.

The above originally appeared in The Cauldron at SI.com

 

 

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