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No ace leaves Reds in a hole

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Cheers and Jeers,Sports,MLB,Jeffrey Tomik

The shutdown of Stephen Strasburg continues to be debated and discussed throughout the Nationals' postseason run. But it was the absence of a different ace that completely changed the other National League Division Series.

Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto pulled a muscle in his side during the first inning of the series opener against the San Francisco Giants. Cincinnati turned to Sam LeCure, Mat Latos and three other pitchers in relief and escaped with a Game 1 win.

But the loss of Cueto was felt later in the series.

After coming home with a 2-0 lead in the NLDS, Homer Bailey took the mound. He allowed one hit and one run while striking out 10 in seven innings. But the Giants prevailed 2-1 in 10 innings of the well-pitched ballgame.

The Reds still held the 2-1 series lead with the final two games at the Great American Ball Park, but they were forced to drop the injured Cueto from the playoff roster just hours before Wednesday's Game 4. Cincinnati handed the ball to right-hander Mike Leake.

Instead of Cueto -- a Cy Young candidate who was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA -- they had to send out Leake (8-9, 4.58 ERA) on short notice.

Leake didn't fare well, lasting only 41Ú3 innings and allowing five runs. Luckily for Cincinnati, Giants starter Barry Zito didn't have his best stuff either and was pulled after 22Ú3 innings. The difference? San Francisco had two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum waiting in the bullpen, and he cleaned up the mess as the Giants won 8-3.

All of a sudden the Reds faced elimination after heading home with a 2-0 series lead.

And the pitching matchup for the deciding Game 5? Giants Cy Young candidate Matt Cain (16-5, 2.79 ERA) against Latos (14-4, 3.48 ERA).

The Reds right-hander had a solid year, but the Giants again had the pitching advantage.

Latos allowed six runs in 41Ú3, and Cincinnati completed the three-game collapse at home with a 6-4 loss Thursday.

It's not like Cueto would have taken the mound every game, but the loss of an ace completely alters the way a series plays out. At least for the Nats, they were prepared for it.

- Jeffrey Tomik

jtomik@washingtonexaminer.com

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