SAN FRANCISCO -- If this was the way they dreamed it up, it was one of those weird, late-night pizza kind of dreams. No moving buildings or talking animals (well, unless you count the Panda at third base), but weird all the same. For the Reds, the weirdness took all of eight pitches to set in Saturday night. No Reds pitcher had missed a start all season. So naturally, they lost their ace, Johnny Cueto, to back spasms just one out and two strikes into the National League Division Series against the Giants. Forget the dream. This was a nightmare. You know what you were thinking in that moment when Cueto was hurting and hunched over, and the Reds were probably thinking it, too.
"Oh, no," an honest Brandon Phillips admitted thinking to himself. "We're cooked. We're done."
The thought subsided quickly, because, well, they flew all the way out here, so they might as well try to win a game, right? They won this game, 5-2. They won it by using three pitchers in the first three innings. They won it by burning their Game 3 probable, Mat Latos, in an "In Case of Emergency, Break Glass" moment. They won it with Aroldis Chapman throwing 100-mph heat in places only in the vicinity of the strike zone and turning a four-run lead in the ninth into a nail-biter. The result makes the method immaterial. When you're 17 years removed from your last postseason win, you take it any way you can get it. And what the Reds bought themselves here was the home-field advantage they had actually earned but only technically received in this one-year-only Division Series scheduling quirk. Because now they know they won't have to face their greatest fear of heading home down 0-2. Further fears were resolved when Cueto reported postgame that his back was feeling better. Good enough to take the ball in Game 3, 4 or 5? Nobody knows yet. But this does not appear to be an oblique issue -- a "good night and good luck" scenario -- and so it does not appear all that bleak. But it did create its fair share of chaos. Baker was on the mound checking on Cueto, the scenarios streaming through his head, while Latos stood in the dugout and started to loosen up on his own. "I was trying to figure out who was going to come in the game and who was going to pitch and who was going to finish second," Baker said. "And all these things are going through your mind and umpires are telling you, 'Make sure you tell us the right name,' you know what I mean? I have never had that happen before." Well, you know, Baker's only managed more than 3,000 games. Suffice to say if he's never had something happen before, it's weird. Sam LeCure -- the starter, turned long man, turned secondary setup man -- was summoned, and this was a reminder that if any of these postseason bullpens is deep enough to pick up the slack for a shortened outing from a starter, it's that of the Reds. But this deep and this short? Tall order. LeCure, it turned out, was a cure. Four quick outs, and then a two-on, two-out jam averted and avoided by the graces of the NL rulebook. LeCure intentionally walked No. 8 hitter Brandon Crawford in that second-inning scenario to get to Matt Cain, who promptly flew out to end the threat. And then the Reds' bats got to Cain, something that could not be said of their last postseason date with a recent entry into Club Perfecto. Roy Halladay no-hit the Reds in Game 1 in 2010. This time, Phillips hit Cain's hanging curve a long, long way, and the Reds were on the board, 2-0. It was a lead they would protect, with Jay Bruce going deep to the deepest part of a park that was supposed to suppress the long-ball luster of this Reds offense. And all Latos allowed on short notice was Buster Posey's solo shot in the sixth. Lose your Game 1 starter, replace him on the fly with your Game 3 starter and render moot the Giants' pregame video viewing and scouting report perusing? Diabolical. "Latos is tough, and, just like us, we had starters that could go tonight," Bruce Bochy said. "He was available and came in and did a great job on us. ... All the hitters prepare to face Johnny Cueto, but we have all the information on the relievers, and Latos who came in, and they pitched well." Save for the somewhat rusty Chapman, who had an adventurous turn in the ninth, they pitched well and played well. We might remember this as Phillips' postseason coming-out party, with the three RBIs, the Matrix move to avoid a double-play tag, the successive barehanded balls and the heads-up backup of a wayward throw to first. As tends to be the case, though, this was a team effort in which the Cueto conundrum turned into a rallying cry. "Let's win this for Johnny," is how Phillips put it. They won it for Johnny, and they won it for Cincy. Beyond even the enormous (and obvious) value of a Game 1 victory in a best-of-five, this was the first postseason victory of any sort for one of the city's prime professional sports franchises since the Reds' Division Series win over the Dodgers in '95 (unless we want to get truly technical and start talking about the glory days of the Cincinnati Cyclones' Kelly Cup). In Game 1 in 2010, the Halladay no-hitter quickly swept away the champagne buzz from the Reds' first division title in 15 years. Eight pitches into the 2012 postseason, optimism threatened to morph into ominousness just as quickly. But the Reds showed they are a different team this time around. They can still dare to dream, even if the dreams don't come out exactly as concocted.