Brandon Phillips is rarely speechless.
No one holds court in the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse like the team’s loquacious second baseman. At public outings, none of the other players is as comfortable mingling with the fans. And when it comes to tweeting, he’s the Niagara Falls of 140-character communication flow.
But after Saturday’s disappointing 8-3 loss to Pittsburgh, the latest in a string of final-week meltdowns that now has cost the Reds home-field advantage for Tuesday’s wild card play-in game against these same Pirates, one question left him open-jawed and stammering for a few seconds.
“So what do you think about Johnny Cueto starting for you guys Tuesday?” he was asked as he stood at his locker.
“Aaaaah … who’s pitching Tuesday?” he finally said.
Told manager Dusty Baker had just announced it was Cueto, Phillips tried to collect his thoughts: “Oh, they changed it! …Well…aaah…to tell you the truth I don’t know nothing, man. I thought Latos was pitching. I don’t know what happened.”
Join the crowd, Brandon.
Everybody thought Mat Latos would start this do-or-die game. He has been the team’s most dominant pitcher this season, while Cueto — the opening-day starter — has been on the disabled list three times with a strained muscle behind his pitching shoulder.
He was shelved from June 28 until mid September and has thrown twice since coming back. Five day ago, even after Cueto had had a solid outing against the New York Mets, Baker said he didn’t know how his veteran right-hander might fit into the playoff rotation.
But then during Saturday’s postgame session with media, the Reds manager threw a better curveball than any of his seven pitchers had on the day.
He said Latos was not 100 percent, that his “arm is barking some so we’re going with Cueto.”
Asked if this was a calculated gamble, Baker shook his head:
“No, not really. If Latos is sore, if his arm is barking, he can’t pitch. It’s not a calculated gamble — it’s a necessity.”
Along with a matter of need, it also seems to be a matter of gut instinct for Baker.
Cueto has experience in tough games and when healthy has dominated teams. He’s been solid since his return, allowing two runs, one earned, in 12 innings while striking out 10 and walking four.
That’s why the other day Baker referred to Cueto as “The Man.”
That sentiment was echoed by Joey Votto after Saturday’s game:
“No question about it, injury or not, Johnny is still our ace. I know that Mat Latos has definitely put a lot of pressure on the pitching staff, challenging them through his performances, and he’s certainly set a really high standard.
“But Johnny has been hurt a good percentage of this year. Last year he probably should have been an All Star. He probably received Cy Young votes and they don’t just hand those things out. And Johnny looks like the same Johnny again. That’s why I call him our ace.”
The Reds need something dynamic to jolt them out of the staggering malaise that has come over them the past few days. They’ve lost four games straight at home and deflated some of their playoff expectations.
After they beat the Mets in 10 innings last Monday night, they were still thinking about leap-frogging the St. Louis Cardinals and winning the NL Central. Then they lost the final two games of the series to the Mets and the first two to the Prates and that means, following today’s meaningless matchup, they hit the road for the play-in game.
Throughout the season the Reds have been able to overcome injuries and offensive slumps with good pitching, but in the past two games their starters — Homer Bailey on Friday night and Bronson Arroyo on Saturday — have had poor outings.
Arroyo was hit with a mysterious injury just before the game and the pain, thanks to the Pirates, only got worse as the day went on. The Pirates lit him up for five home runs — they got another off Logan Ondrusek — in 4 2/3 innings.
“Something locked up before the game,” said Arroyo. “It felt like a rib was out of place and still does. … It felt like somebody had something and they were stabbing me between the ribs. I was having a hard time breathing and wasn’t able to swivel left or right.”
Meanwhile, Reds hitters were stymied again and left 11 runners stranded.
As for going to Pittsburgh, Votto for one claims home-field advantage is often overrated.
He pointed to the two recent series with the Pirates. The Reds won two of three in Pittsburgh a week ago, then have lost the first two to the Pirates back here.
One problem, though, is Pirates starter Francisco Liriano, who has a 1.47 ERA in 11 starts at home this year.
Phillips called him the league’s “Comeback Player of the Year,” but he thinks Cueto could lay claim to some of that honor as well come Tuesday:
“It’s nice to see Cueto come back, he’s one of the best pitchers in the game. I look forward to Cueto pitching. I believe in Cueto, we all do. Hopefully he can bring his A game and be the Cueto we all know. If he can do his thing, hopefully our offense can do it and I can do mine. I feel like if I do my job and turn up and bring some swag to the team, nobody can beat us.”
Phillips laughed, then winced as he shifted his weight on his left leg.
He had left the game in the fifth inning after fouling a ball off his shin and instantly seeing a baseball-sized lump pop up on the bruised area.
As he was doubled over in pain near home plate, he said Pirates catcher Russell Martin looked at it and said, “Oh man, I never seen nothing like that.”
Asked what he was saying at the timer, Phillips just smiled and shook his head:
“You have to ask Fox. I was miked up and I said all kinds of words I don’t think I was allowed to say.”
Turns out, Brandon Phillips wasn’t at a loss for words all day.