CINCINNATI -- The record is clear on this point: There is one sure way for the Reds to defeat the Cardinals -- start Mat Latos.
It has been an uphill battle against St. Louis, and not only for the Reds. The Cardinals, despite a 4-2 loss to the Reds Saturday night, have Major League Baseball's best record at 40-22.
The Reds, tied for second place in the National League Central with the Pirates, trail the Cardinals by three games. But the Reds are just 3-5 against St. Louis this season. The three victories have one thing in common: Latos started all three of those games.
Latos was not involved in the decision in his first start against St. Louis, on Apr 8, but he gave up just one earned run over six innings in what became a 13-4 Cincinnati victory. On Apr. 29, Latos worked six shutout innings against the Cardinals, and earned the decision in a 2-1 victory.
Both of those games were in St. Louis. Saturday night, at Great American Ball Park, Latos limited the Cardinals to two runs over seven innings. In his last four starts against the Redbirds, Latos has given up just four earned runs in 24 innings for a 1.50 ERA.
Then again, Latos hasn't been beaten by anybody else, either. In 13 starts this season, he is 6-0, with a 2.87 ERA. The Reds are 10-3 in Latos' starts. Latos hasn't lost in 20 straight regular-season starts.
"Latos did give us what we needed tonight," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.
With these three winning performances against St. Louis, is Latos evolving into a true big-game pitcher?
"Almost," Baker said. "Big-game boy goes a little deeper into games. That's why I said, 'almost.' He's on the way. He's better than when we first got him and he can still get better. He could be 9-0 -- those four blown saves, he came out after six, 6 2/3 innings. That's what I mean by 'almost.'"
Latos, asked about his recent success against St. Louis, responded: "That's a great lineup. They use to kick the crap out of me."
Now, Latos said, he was making adjustments in his pitching patterns against the Cardinals, forcing them to adjust to him.
Latos wasn't overpowering on Saturday, but he was good enough to beat the Cardinals, which is a level the vast majority of pitchers facing St. Louis this season have not reached. Latos was helped out considerably in the sixth by back-to-back outstanding outfield plays -- a running grab at the wall in right-center by center fielder Shin-Soo Choo, and then a leaping catch on the warning track in right by Jay Bruce.
And all of the Reds were aided by a ninth-inning call. With two outs and the tying runs on base, Carlos Beltran hit a bouncer to third. Replays showed that Todd Frazier's throw pulled first baseman Joey Votto off the bag, thus making Beltran safe. But first-base umpire Phil Cuzzi called Beltran out and the game was over.
The Reds may have been due for a break in this matchup. In any case, they had the essential element they needed, a strong starting pitching performance. Latos' seven sturdy innings allowed Baker to go to his Plan A relievers, Jonathan Broxton in the eighth, and the one-of-a-kind closer, Aroldis Chapman, for the ninth.
Latos has also been particularly effective at Great American Ball Park, a hitter-friendly facility. When asked about this, Latos knocked on the wood of his locker.
"I think it's just concentration," Latos said. He explained that when he pitched for the Padres earlier in his career at spacious PETCO Park, he knew that he could pitch up in the zone and throw sliders over the middle of the plate without being seriously damaged. In the much cozier confines in Cincinnati, Latos said, he knew he had to be more precise with his pitches.
There is no magic to Latos' formula, Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco said. This is primarily a case of a pitcher with a lot of ability.
"The guy can pitch," Mesoraco said. "He just goes out there and he's being Mat Latos."
To win the NL Central, the Reds are going to have to improve on their 3-5 pace against the Cardinals. Maybe it's unfortunate that Latos is only available every fifth day for this duty. But the 2013 record indicates that when he is available, he offers the Reds a major boost.