MILWAUKEE -- The Cincinnati Reds are not yet where they want to be. But now, at least, they are in a spot in which where they want to be has become clearly visible.
Saturday night, for the first time this season, the Reds were able to use Mat Latos, a proven big league winner. Latos, returning from both elbow and knee surgeries to start his first game of the season, was highly effective.
He shut out a difficult Milwaukee lineup in hitter-friendly Miller Park for six innings and left with a 1-0 lead. But the Cincinnati bullpen surrendered two runs in both the seventh and eighth innings and the Reds eventually lost, 4-2.
So this was not a night for outright jubilation. Still, Latos' performance had been extremely encouraging.
"He did his job," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "He did exactly what we had hoped he would do and we will continue to build him up, innings and pitch-wise."
Latos' return was a definite plus, but it was part of an even more encouraging pattern for the Reds. Battered by injuries, they have returned not to full health, but to a level of health at which they should be the kind of team they expected to be.
This was, after all, a team that qualified for the postseason three times in the last four years, and won the National League Central twice in that period. The Reds are not supposed to be south of .500. They are just below that mark now, but they don't' expect to stay there.
"Really, almost all the pieces are in place, but how many teams are playing with all their pieces right now?" Price said before Saturday night's game. "Now we're like everybody else; we're missing a couple of pieces, but for the most part we're intact. We have a lineup that looks like the lineup that we were going to have coming out of Spring Training. Our starting rotation is whole. Our bullpen is closer to whole.
"I think there's a much stronger feeling of optimism that we can get to be the kind of team we thought we were going to be coming out of Spring Training. Absolutely, I think there's a renewed vigor to the club, just by seeing these pieces being put back together again."
The Reds look impressive from the other dugout as well. Asked if he thought the Reds were significantly better than their record suggested, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke concurred.
"Absolutely. You look at their five starters, you look at their bullpen, and then go through their lineup. That's a good lineup," Roenicke said. "I think health has a huge amount to do with what goes on. That's what happened to us last year. We lost guys, and this year they lost guys. But they're back healthy and they look good. "
Even as Latos was activated, lefty reliever Sean Marshall returned to the disabled list with shoulder soreness. This isn't a pain-free roster. But at least the Reds, who have had 12 players on the DL this season, have reached a point where they can compete at the level they expected.
The performance of Latos was evidence on behalf of that notion. He worked six shutout innings, giving up just two hits with no walks and four strikeouts. He worked efficiently, needing 87 pitches. He might have been available for the seventh inning, but for a 13-pitch at-bat by Milwaukee second baseman Scooter Gennett that ended in a double in the sixth. Latos believed it should have ended with a third strike twice during the at-bat, but home-plate umpire Brian O'Nora did not share that belief.
Like everybody else in the Reds clubhouse, Latos was downcast about the loss. But he was happy to be back on the mound.
"Emotional for sure," he said about returning to the rotation. "First time back and it's been a while. It's been a struggle to get where I was today. It was definitely good. The outcome kind of sucks, but that's baseball. They're in first place for a reason."
It appeared that Latos had the command not of a pitcher who had missed the first 66 games of a season, but of a pitcher who had been on the mound on a regular basis.
"I didn't walk anybody, so that's a plus," Latos said. "In the past I've let it get away from me, trying to strike a lot of people out, trying to make sure I get to that two-strike count and then try to fool them.
"I think I'm more of an asset when I go deeper in the ballgames, especially right now when I'm only available for half a season. I haven't been pitching with these guys for a couple of months so I definitely want to go as long as I can to help out the bullpen as much as I can."
In the near future, you could expect Latos after six fine innings to take care of the seventh inning himself. You could also see, even through a painful defeat, renewed reasons for the Reds to be optimistic.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.