Bloom: Latos key for Padres now, in the future
Young righty approaches innings limit with playoffs on the line
PHOENIX -- As the Padres balance the health of one of their top pitchers against the needs of the immediate future, young Mat Latos had four simple words for upper management."I feel perfectly fine," he said Wednesday. That's more than one can say about the suddenly reeling club. Despite a 10-strikeout, four-hit performance by the 22-year-old right-hander, the Padres fled Chase Field on the heels of a seven-game losing streak after dropping a 5-2 decision to the D-backs. They haven't lost that many in a row since July 5-11, 2009. Still nestled tenuously atop the National League West, the Padres headed to San Diego for a 10-game homestand beginning Friday night at PETCO Park against the Rockies, Dodgers and Giants -- the three teams immediately behind them in standings. A 6 1/2-game lead on Aug. 25 before the recent skid began without much warning has now dwindled to three over San Francisco. After a day off on Thursday, the Padres play 30 games in the final 31 days, their season ending with a three-game set against the Giants at AT&T Park. As the streak has snowballed, balls typically have been kicked away, leads typically squandered. Two of their most competent starters -- Wade LeBlanc and Kevin Correia -- haven't been as consistent as they once were this season. That has forced manager Bud Black to go with an untried rookie -- Corey Luebke -- on Friday night against Colorado. It may not be that much of a reach. Luebke was 10-1 with a 2.68 ERA in the Minors this season. If Luebke pitches credibly, there may well be changes in a starting rotation that has been one of the club's towers of strength this season. Through the team's first 132 games, the starting five of Jon Garland, Clayton Richard, Latos, LeBlanc and Correia have made all except two starts. "That's an amazing run of stability," Black said. Latos has allowed two or fewer runs in each of his last 14 starts dating back to June 10, including just one run on Wednesday. Latos threw 99 pitches, equaled his less-than-month-old personal high in strikeouts, and left after six innings with the score tied at 1. He's tossed 154 1/3 innings, each outing growing nearer to the 180-inning ceiling the Padres have set for him. And that figure includes a possible run in the playoffs. The Padres have been cautious about Latos. After bringing him up for a short stint from Double-A San Antonio last season, they shut him down in September. He threw 123 combined innings, including 50 2/3 in the Majors. But the Friars weren't in a pennant race and there wasn't much to play for last season. This year, there is everything to play for. That's the fulcrum the ballclub must pivot upon -- prepare for the future or win now. Latos wants to win now. He says he still feels strong and points at his velocity as proof.
"It hasn't dropped," Latos said, noting that he was clocked at 97 mph on his final pitch of the afternoon on Wednesday."They're going to do what they're going to do," Latos added, referring to Padres management. "I can't change that. I can only go out there when they send me out there and continue to compete." Then there's the specter of Chris Young's return. The right-hander, recovering from a surgically repaired shoulder, made a rehab start on Tuesday night, threw three innings, and is being tabbed to make at least one more before the Minor League season runs its course. Under the best of circumstances, he could rejoin the team in the middle of the month, giving the Padres seven competent and healthy starters for the stretch run. That in itself may be a stretch, Black said, adding that the jury is still out regarding what the club intends to do about Latos and Young. Young hasn't pitched in the big leagues since April 6 at Chase Field, when he threw six innings of one-hit ball in a 6-3 victory over the D-backs. "Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves," the manager said. "It's unfair to put those kinds of expectations on C.Y. And as far as Latos is concerned, we'll see what happens when he gets closer to that 180 mark." Asked if the Padres might drop Latos from the postseason rotation if he exceeds that number, Black calmly responded: "No." The fact is that despite leading the Major Leagues with a 3.35 ERA, the Padres aren't content with their starting pitching. The hierarchy reportedly scoured the waiver wire for help right up until postseason rosters had to be set at the witching hour on Tuesday night. Correia hasn't won since Aug. 16, and has allowed 20 earned runs during his last three starts. LeBlanc hasn't won since Aug. 15 and has given up 16 earned runs in his last three starts. The rotation has thrown 759 1/3 innings, thus the decision to use Luebke for a spot start, moving Garland back to Saturday and Richard to Sunday. Black would make no commitment about the rotation beyond the Rockies series. "After that we'll reassess," he said. That reassessment for right now undoubtedly involves Correia and LeBlanc. As Latos said, he's feeling "perfectly fine," and pitching at a high level, too.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.