It's difficult to believe that the Reds, after breaking out to a 2-0 lead in the series and looking like the most dominant Reds incarnation since the Big Red Machine, even allowed the Giants to extend the National League Division Series to a fifth game. But, they did and even took it one step further by letting the whole series slip through their fingers.
I suppose the kiss of death happened shortly after Game 2. After watching Bronson baffle the Giants with a combination of slow, slower, and slowest offerings, I had an epiphany that I've never had in my entire life. It occurred to me that the Reds were the team to beat. Not just in the NL, but in all of Major League Baseball. For the first time in my entire rooting life, the Reds appeared to be the best team in baseball. So thorough and complete was the dismantling of the Giants in the first two games that there appeared to be no stopping the Reds. There was almost a sense of inevitability regarding a World Series championship. That was something that I had never previously experienced. And, of course, the wheels on the championship bus ground to a halt immediately thereafter.
The death knell sounded in the 5th inning of Game 5, leaving us with nothing more than dashed dreams and the familiar refrain of "wait 'til next year."
Here's how the top of the 5th inning unfolded:
Gregor Blanco - 0 Outs, 0 On-Base, 0 Runs Scored
1st Pitch: Swinging bunt attempt on high curveball - Strike 1
2nd Pitch: Fouled off fastball up and on outside corner - Strike 2
3rd Pitch: Fastball called ball in off the plate - Ball 1
4th Pitch: Elevated breaking ball over middle of plate fouled off - Strike 2
5th Pitch: Slaps 95 mph fastball on outside corner through 5.5 hole - Single
Latos looked tough in this AB. He got ahead in the count and effectively worked on the periphery of the strike zone. Latos may not have been happy with one of the calls, but this was just a high quality AB by Gregor Blanco, an underrated hitter who has been a sneaky good value for the Giants.
Brandon Crawford - 0 Outs, 1 On-Base, 0 Runs Scored
1st Pitch: Fastball low and just off outside corner - Ball 1
2nd Pitch: Fastball just a tick low - Ball 2
3rd Pitch: 90 mph fastball over the heart of the plate - Triple to right, Blanco scores.
Working out of the stretch, Latos started off the AB against Crawford well. His first two pitches were again on the periphery of the strike zone, arguably half the ball was in the zone and half the ball was outside the zone. Latos didn't get either call, but they could have gone either way. They were tough, effective pitches, but I can't fault the umpire for not calling them strikes. Unfortunately, Latos was behind 2-0 and had to come into the hitter. The third pitch was a BIG mistake, a low velocity fastball that up in the zone and right over the heart of the plate. Crawford, the number 8 hitter, didn't miss it, ripping a triple down the right field line to score Gregor Blanco.
As tough as the first two pitches were, the third pitch was delivered with a "Hit-Me!" sign on it. It was a clear mistake by Latos and he paid the price. Given how poor the pitch was, it's fair to wonder whether Latos was losing focus out of frustration over the calls he thought he should have gotten against Blanco and Crawford. In fact, after time was called, the ump walked halfway out to the mound without his mask on to throw a new ball to Latos. It's likely that Latos, in some way shape or form, had expressed frustration prior to that exchange. One of the knocks on Latos prior to the season was that he struggled to control his emotions at times, an issue which may have come back to haunt him here.
Matt Cain - 0 Outs, 1 On-Base, 1 Run Scored
1st Pitch: Fastball 94 mph well up and well in off the plate, Cain leans out of the way - Ball 1
2nd Pitch: 94 mph fastball a tick inside, but close to the middle of plate, fouled off - Strike 1
3rd Pitch: 85 mph breaking ball in middle of plate, chopper back to Latos, holds Crawford at third and throws to first for the out.
Here, the first pitch of the AB was well off the plate. Considering (1) how effectively he was working the periphery of the zone to the previous two hitters and (2) that he was facing the pitcher, this pitch was a poor effort. Either Latos was simply losing effectiveness or losing focus, but this was the second poor pitch of the inning, the first resulting in the triple to Crawford. After the first pitch to Cain, Latos got back on track with his next two pitches, ultimately inducing a chopper back to the mound for the 1st out and holding Crawford at third.
Angel Pagan - 1 Out, 1 On-Base, 1 Run Scored
Pre-1st Pitch: After looking into the dugout, Hanigan calls time, drops shoulders and head, pats his mitt a few times, his body language expresses frustration...with a delay in either the pitch or defensive call being relayed from the dugout???
1st Pitch: 92 mph fastball, fouled off by Pagan, catching more of the zone, slightly away/elevated - Strike 1
2nd Pitch: 92 mph fastball, up and in, that Pagan chops to shortstop Cozart. With the infield playing in, Cozart tries to come home to get Crawford, who was running on contact, but loses the handle on the ball on the transfer and everyone was safe. It was a bad camera angle on the pitch, but Hanigan, who appeared to be setting up outside, reached a long way for it and it looked like a significant location mistake.
In hindsight, this AB is where it became clear that things were unraveling. Given that the Reds were in an "all hands on-deck" situation, it would have been appropriate for Dusty, if he noticed the signs, to get someone up in the pen with the heart of the Giants order coming up. The first thing that surprised me was the body language of Ryan Hanigan prior to the first pitch. It was looking like Latos was getting frustrated in the first two hitters of the inning, but Hanigan was looking frustrated in this AB. Not sure if the frustration was the result of the dugout being late to relay in signs or with the calls of the umpire, either way it wasn't a good sign with an increasingly rattled Latos on the mound.
As for Cozart, the play resulted in the worst possible outcome. It was a big moment and we needed either the out at the plate or the out at first. Instead, the run scores, a runner ends up on first, and we give away an out. If Cozart concedes the run and takes the easy play at first, then Latos faces Scutaro with 2 outs and no runners on base. If that happens, maybe Latos pulls it back together when faced with a clean slate. In an elimination game, the players simply have to execute. The Reds didn't.
Marco Scutaro - 1 Out, 1 On-Base, 2 Runs Scored
1st Pitch: Pitch out, runner not going - Ball 1
2nd Pitch: 86 mph breaking ball, misses up and in - Ball 2. Scutaro showing bunt, pulls back and leans out of the way as the pitch is somewhat close to him.
3rd Pitch: 84 mph breaking ball. Misses low and away - Ball 3
4th Pitch: 93 mph fastball, misses in off the plate - Ball 4
This was a terrible AB for Latos. Given that things were starting to slip away, the wisdom of a first pitch pitch-out can be called into question. The fact that Dusty called it may be another example of Dusty viewing speed as more impactful than on-base percentage, as he feared Pagan moving up a base more than spotting Scutaro, a professional hitter, an early advantage in the count. Latos was struggling and putting him in an immediate 1-0 hole was not ideal. Latos followed up by throwing balls all around the strike zone to walk Scutaro, never even challenging him, which is inexcusable ahead of Sandoval and Posey.
Bryan Price visit to the mound. Sam LeCure up in the bullpen.
At this point, the Reds go out to talk to Latos and the bullpen starts to heat up. Was it too late? Should they have visited the mound sooner? For example, prior to the Scutaro AB when it was apparent that Hanigan and Latos appeared frustrated and Cozart mishandled the chopper? Was that the time to visit the mound to break the rhythm of the inning to try to calm the team down and refocus Latos? Did they put too much trust in Latos?
After the way Latos had pitched this season and during the playoffs, you could certainly justify it, but you could also justify warming up the bullpen in such a critical game.
Pablo Sandoval - 1 Out, 2 On-Base, 2 Runs Scored
1st Pitch: 91 mph fastball. Good pitch, low and away - Strike 1
2nd Pitch: 92 mph fastball. Hanigan in standing-crouch, wanting the pitch elevated, Latos misses badly away - Ball 1
3rd Pitch: 84 mph breaking ball off the outside corner, very good pitch by Latos, Pablo flips a soft liner to left field and the runners move up to 2nd and 3rd to load the bases.
This AB was nothing more than good hitting. Pablo beat a good pitch, a pitcher's pitch, a pitch that wasn't even a strike. Tough to pin this one on Latos. Pablo executed in a big moment.
Buster Posey - 1 Out, 3 On-Base, 2 Runs Scored
1st Pitch: 92 mph fastball up and in. Buster leans away. Not close - Ball 1
2nd Pitch: 89 mph fastball on inside corner. Buster fouls grounder to third - Strike 1
3rd Pitch: 92 mph fastball misses inside, a purpose pitch to set up 4th pitch? - Ball 2.
4th Pitch: 93 mph fastball off the outside corner. Posey chases, swings and misses - Strike 2
5th Pitch: 94 mph fastball. Hanigan sets up on inside corner, pitch drifts back right over the middle. Posey crushes it off the facing of the second deck in left. Mistake pitch. Grand slam. Done.
Hanigan drops glove, spins away from the plate and takes steps towards the stands in frustration/disgust. Latos never turns to watch it go. No doubt where it was heading.
This was pretty much the worst case scenario. Buster Posey is the NL MVP this year and I thought that before this series. He has controlled both sides of the game better than any other NL player this year. His ABs are just tremendous, he handles a pitching staff and controls the running game better than everyone. So, to face him with the bases loaded is as bad as it gets. No where to put him. No way around him. The highest leverage situation of the game and facing the NL MVP.
It was a huge situation. Our best (healthy) starting pitcher against their best hitter. History remembers winners. The pitch that Posey hit was a big mistake, drifting back over the middle of the plate. It had good velocity, which is frequently results in a significant margin of error for the pitcher, but Posey can handle plus velocity without much difficulty. Once again, the Giants' players execute in a big moment, while the Reds' players do not. Maybe that's how all contests should be decided: best vs. best. An "I'm better than you and I can prove it" moment. That provides little comfort to Reds' fans who haven't experienced postseason glory in almost two decades.
Pitching Change. Latos out, LeCure in
The day comes to an end for Latos. Was it too late? Did Dusty close the barn door after the horse had already escaped? Or, did Latos earned the benefit of the doubt? Credit Dusty for having faith in his fellas or criticize him for not utilizing the bullpen like it was a do-or-die game?
Dusty has had tremendous regular season success, but limited postseason success. Is that due to his refusal to alter his managerial style to permit more micro-managing in the playoffs? Or, does this one fall squarely on the players for poor execution?
Hunter Pence - 1 Out, 0 On-Base, 6 Runs Scored
First Pitch: 87 mph fastball - Called Strike 1
Second Pitch: 80 mph breaking ball. Weak grounder foul to third - Strike 2
Third Pitch: 91 mph fastball on outside corner. Ground out to Phillips.
LeCure comes in and makes quick work of Hunter Pence. There is a theory that home runs are a rally killer. It's a theory that's frequently lampooned, but it appeared to be the case here, as the Giants went meekly against an inferior pitcher after the Posey grand slam.
Brandon Belt - 2 Outs, 0 On-Base, 6 Runs Scored
First Pitch: 71 mph curveball. Misses up and away - Ball 1
Second Pitch: 90 mph fastball. Low and away - Called Strike 1
Third Pitch: 73 mph curveball. Fouled off - Strike 2
Fourth Pitch: 91 mph fastball. Misses in and down - Ball 2
Fifth Pitch: 74 mph curveball down. Belt chases. Strikes out swinging
LeCure, once again proving to be a very capable and valuable long reliever type, makes quick work of Belt, recording the final out of the inning.
In hindsight, it's easy to see how all the events came together to sink the Reds season. But, whether anything could realistically have been done to prevent it is arguable. You could argue that Dusty was too passive, managing this game no differently than he would have managed on opening day. You could argue that the pitch-out was ill timed. You could argue that Price should have gone to the mound after the misplay by Cozart, before the 4-pitch walk to Scutaro. Frankly, all three critiques are valid. It just seemed that things were gradually slipping away and Dusty/Price did nothing to stop it. Maybe, this was a case of Dusty having too MUCH faith in his players, lacking a sense of urgency in an elimination game. Or, maybe, because the damage was done largely on one swing of the bat, things just happened too fast to prevent.
Player inexperience and failure to execute were also to blame. Latos had the opportunity to cement a legacy in Cincinnati. After coming into a difficult Game 1 in relief and putting up a dominating effort, Latos could have been the toast of the town. It was a moment. One that could be defining, but it's tough to say this early in his career. But, if he had followed that outing by shutting down the Giants in an elimination game, then he probably would have been King of the Queen City. However, it didn't happen. Latos' struggles to control his emotions may have played a part, causing him to lose focus. Cozart's nerves may have gotten to him on the chopper causing him to rush his actions. Finally, Hanigan failed to be a calming influence on Latos, which was surprising, but also seemed frustrated himself, which was even more surprising.
I suppose we can hope that our young players will use this game to become battle-hardened veterans for future postseason games. A type of "learning how to win, Fast Eddie Felson style" process. But, future postseason appearances are never guaranteed and given how many chances the offense had to close the gap in this game, it's impossible not to be frustrated by the Reds' inability to, at a bare minimum, contain the damage in the 5th inning.
In final analysis, the Giants executed in big moments, the Reds did not. Brandon Crawford made the plays, Zach Cozart did not. Buster Posey controlled the game, Ryan Hanigan did not.
That's why the Reds are now sitting at home. That's why this winter will be longer and darker than most...