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Latos talks all things Reds in Chatting Cage

NEW YORK -- Reds right-hander Mat Latos didn't mind stepping up as the club's top starter in the absence of fellow righty Johnny Cueto, but Latos is certainly happy to have the staff's usual ace back on the mound Monday night against the Mets.

Typically Cincinnati's No. 2 starter, Latos is off to a 4-0 start with a 2.91 ERA through nine starts, most of which came while filling in for Cueto atop the rotation. All four of Latos' wins came after Cueto (19-9, 2.78 ERA in 2012) was placed on the disabled list in mid-April with a strained right lat muscle.

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Now, with Cueto returning to the hill Monday night at Citi Field, the Reds are hoping Latos can continue his ace-like production when he slots back into his normal spot in the rotation Wednesday.

"Johnny sets the table for us every start, so when he goes down, somebody had to step up," said Latos, who stopped by the headquarters on Friday to field questions from fans via social media and a live video stream inside the Edward Jones Chatting Cage. "This year, with him going down, it was bad. You have to take it upon yourself to just be the best that you can and basically take on a little extra."

Making matters worse for the Reds was the timing of Cueto's injury. While Latos proved he was plenty capable of being a front-end starter last season while going 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA, the 25-year-old has endured his fair share of early-season struggles during his time in the big leagues.

Prior to this season, Latos was just 2-8 with a 5.73 ERA over 13 career April starts. Yet with Cueto out of action, Latos went 2-0 with a 1.83 ERA in his six April starts and played a key role in the Reds going 21-12 over the past five weeks without their ace.

"It was a little more stressful, but April went real well for me this year, thank God," Latos said. "I'm just trying to continue it with Johnny coming back, and I'm just trying to pick up where I left off while he was out."

Latos, who has allowed three earned runs or fewer in all but one of his nine starts, will likely need to do just that in his first outing following Cueto's return. On Wednesday, Latos will take on another young pitcher who has thrived while stepping into his team's ace role in the Mets' Matt Harvey.

Harvey, 24, has still yet to lose this season, posting a 5-0 record to go along with a 1.55 ERA in nine starts. The young phenom has limited the opposition to two runs or fewer in each of his past four trips to the mound.

"Right now, the Mets have a really good kid that's been pitching really well in Matt Harvey. He's got a live arm and really good stuff," Latos said. "It'll be interesting to pitch against him on Wednesday, and these are the matchups I need to be prepared for."

Though Wednesday's matchup will again create the feeling of an ace-like matchup, Latos insists he is only focused on continuing to pitch well during his second season with the Reds.

Latos, acquired from the Padres in exchange for four players in December 2011, has tallied an 18-4 record over 42 starts since joining the Reds. While his ERA is actually a fraction lower with Cincinnati (3.36) than it was playing in a pitcher-friendly stadium in San Diego (3.37), the adjustment wasn't necessarily an easy one for Latos.

Calling Petco Park home for his first 2 1/2 seasons in the big leagues, Latos admitted he could often get by even when he was not locating his pitches properly. In just his sixth home start with the Reds, he learned the hard way that would not be the case in Cincinnati, as he served up five home runs -- the only hits he allowed over 7 1/3 innings -- to the Rockies on May 27, 2012.

"In San Diego, it was a big ballpark, I didn't really need to make an adjustment in the middle of the game. I could just stick to my routine, and if my fastball was up in the zone, I could get away with it in the bigger ballpark, as opposed to in Cincinnati," Latos said. "I learned that against Colorado last year. The ball was up, I didn't make an adjustment and I gave up five home runs, and those were the only hits I allowed all day."

Yet even in that game, Latos walked away a winner after the Reds' potent offense came to the rescue. The victory made Latos the first pitcher in Major League history to win a game while allowing at least five home runs and no other hits besides the long balls.

Despite pitching in a more hitter-friendly environment in Cincinnati, Latos said the support he gets from his teammates, both offensively and defensively, more than offsets the difference.

"A lot of people look at the offensive lineup that we put out, but you have to look at the defense, as well," Latos said. "A lot of ground balls aren't going to get through the holes with Brandon Phillips, [Zack] Cozart, [Joey] Votto and [Todd] Frazier in the infield. But at the same time, it's good to know that if I give up three or four runs, we've still got a good chance to win.

"It definitely takes a lot of pressure off your shoulders having these guys behind me."

Paul Casella is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella.

Cincinnati Reds, Mat Latos