Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto, who left Saturday's NL Division Series opener with the Giants after just eight pitches, won't be starting game four on Wednesday. Cueto's injury that caused him to leave Saturday's game, initially diagnosed as back spasms, is now described as a mild right oblique strain.
Cincinnati now has an interesting decision to make regarding Wednesday's start. They can either start Mat Latos, who pitched four innings on Saturday, on three days rest, or they can activate Mike Leake and start him. The issue with starting Leake is that if he's activated, Cueto won't be able to come back onto the Reds active roster until the World Series, which is not a situation you want to be in with your ace. Latos didn't exactly labor in his 57 pitch, four inning outing in game one, but sending any starting pitcher to the hill on three days rest is a risky proposition.
There's a gamble involved to starting either player. If you choose Latos, you're banking on him being effective on short rest and that Cueto's oblique could get better in time for the NLCS. If you choose Leake, you're punting on the potential of having your best starter on the roster in the next round of playoffs and that your fifth starter will be able to adequately replace him. Furthermore, what do the Reds do if they lose on Wednesday? If they started Latos, then the decision for game five becomes a rehash of the game four decision: activate Leake and lose Cueto, or start Bronson Arroyo on three days rest? If they lose with Leake in game four, game five becomes all Latos in a duel with Matt Cain.
One underrated aspect that no one seems to be considering is the quality of opposition in games four and five. Barry Zito will start on Wednesday for the Giants, and Matt Cain is lined up to start on Thursday. Which pitcher would you rather face if you were an opposing hitter? While the Giants have won Zito's last 11 starts, he's not exactly Kris Medlen out there. In those 11 starts, ZIto has posted a game score of 50 (which is the base value you get for starting a game) or higher just five times, meaning that in more than half of his starts, he's turned in a below average performance. It's also cute to note that despite this 11 game Giants winning streak in Zito's starts, his ERA has gone from 4.27 to just 4.15, hardly a monumentous drop that you'd associate with a dominant run. Cain on the other hand is one of the best pitchers in the league, and while he lost game one on Saturday, he didn't exactly get roughed up by the Reds.
In any regard, Cincinnati's game three loss was big for them on many levels. If they won and completed the sweep, they would have never even had to visit this question, and they could have just waited a few days to see how Cueto's oblique felt going into the NLCS. But now, their season hangs in the balance with these decisions. The loss on Tuesday could be the beginning of the end of their season. Personally, I'd go all-out and start Latos on Wednesday and Arroyo (if the Reds lost game four) on Thursday. If the Reds lost both games, you could probably craft a narrative about Dusty Baker not trusting the 25-year old Leake (with excellent reason, as Leake has a 5.27 ERA since the All-Star Break and a 5.54 ERA at home this year) and running Latos and Arroyo into the ground (consistent with his history). But both of the veterans are simply better pitchers than Leake, even on short rest.