Sunday, April 30, 2006

An Opportunity Lost, Astros Squeak By Reds 3-2 (Tied with Cards for First in NL Central)

Sunday afternoon's game at GABP was an example of an opportunity lost by the Cincinnati Reds. After winning two games against arguably Houston's best two pitchers (Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte), Cincinnati was facing rookie Taylor Buchholz, who should have been an "easier" adversary to conquer. However, on this day, the young pitcher did not go quietly.

Buchholz was pitching a very solid game until finally relinquishing his position in the seventh inning. His only blemishes came with a single in the second inning (to Austin Kearns) with no runs scored before allowing two hits and two runs to score in the sixth (McCracken singled to start the inning before Dunn cracked a two-run homer with two outs). All of the Astros' runs to support Buchholz came on home runs. Lance Berkman started things off right for the visitors by cranking a no-doubt two-run homer into the left field stands with Willie Taveras on base. Jason Lane homered for the second time in as many games, providing the (eventual) game-winning run on a solo shot in the fourth inning.

Beyond the sixth inning, the bats for both teams were silent. The bullpens were particularly effective in shutting down any offensive scoring. Despite a quality start, Elizardo Ramirez, who allowed only three runs in his six innings of work, did not pitch well enough to outmatch his opponent Buchholz. He certainly did what he needed to do to keep his team in the game, but this was one of those unusual games where the Reds just couldn't score runs.

The loss drops the Reds to 17-8, in a first-place tie with the Cardinals, who are coming to town on Monday for a brief two-game series. Only once this season have the Reds lost a series against a team -- that team was the Cardinals in St. Louis two weeks ago. The Cards did not "dominate" the series by any stretch in the earlier match-up, so look for this rematch to be fairly even. In Monday's game, St. Louis sends Mark Mulder (the second best starter on the team) against Reds' fifth starter Dave Williams (whose ERA is 9.53 with a poor 1-2 record). Cincinnati is going to have to score runs against Mulder to give Williams a chance in this game. Tuesday's game should see a pretty good pitching match-up between undefeated pitchers: Sidney Ponson (3-0, 3.13 ERA) and Bronson Arroyo (4-0, 2.34 ERA). Arroyo has been lights out for the Reds so far (excluding his no-decision on 4/16 head-to-head against Mulder and the Cardinals), while Ponson owns a win against the Reds already this season (on 4/15).

The Astros (16-8, 1/2 game behind) will be traveling to Milwaukee to face a Brewers team (14-11, 3 games back) with renewed hope after taking two of three from the Cubbies at Wrigley this weekend. The Pirates (7-19) have been a non-factor in the division but could play spoiler against the Cubs (13-10) by taking a couple of wins away in the next couple of days.

Somebody will have to lose in the St. Louis - Cincinnati matchup on Monday and then again on Tuesday. A split of both games seems posible, but the Reds would like nothing more than to knock off the formidable Cardinals twice in these two games and have a stellar homestand (possibly four wins in five games if these next two can go their way).

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Two Games, Two Wins; Reds Rock Astros in 5-4 (Friday) and 6-3 (Saturday) Victories

This may finally be a year of "destiny" for the Cincinnati Reds. There were no expectations by any of the "experts" for this team, most of them picking the Reds to be dead last in the NL Central if not near the bottom in all of the National League.

With the Oswalt "gorilla" gone on Friday night and Harang outpitching Pettitte on Saturday, are the Reds in a position to sweep this series? I am nearly a lifelong Reds fan (20+ years of my almost 30 years on the planet) with a passion for the game of baseball. As one of the apparently 9,756 people who bought a ticket at the gate (and the lines reflected the interest) for Friday night's game, I was happy to be part of a "historical" win for the Reds. I also decided, in a last-minute move on my part, that I should go to Saturday's game as well. The crowd of just under 25,000 fans was, to be blunt, disappointing. This is a first-place team, after all ... why not support them at a time when things are going so well?

Yes, Friday night's game was a record-breaking effort -- a record for losing, anyway, to one of the best pitchers in the game. No, this doesn't mean the Reds are a lock to go all the way from here. However, what I believe it means is that this team can figure out ways to win (ala the wonders of the 1990 team) without the most individually talented players available. This team has learned to play as a TEAM. That point is immeasurably important for the rest of this season.

Go figure that new cogs in the retooled "Machine" include Bronson Arroyo (who has been lights out) and Brandon Phillips (who has been lighting it up), among others, who are single-handedly changing the outcomes of games this season. Aaron Harang (who seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield "ace" of this team ... no respect at all) is coming into his own and, as far as I can tell, is pitching some darn good games of late. Ryan Freel and Felipe Lopez are "igniters" of this offense while Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns are the muscle. There are few weak spots up and down this lineup, including surprising star rookie Edwin Encarnacion at third base with league-leading RBI production following the bigger names in the lineup who are getting on base.

Is the pitching on this team still "suspect"? In short, yes, yes it is. Should this pitching staff get more respect than it has? Yes, it should. Harang, Arroyo, Claussen, and Milton (when healthy) are a potent combo. The fifth starter, who usually is not strong on most teams anyway, is particularly weak on this team. Dave Williams is not the right guy for that slot ongoing; Paul Wilson just might be that guy when he returns. A rotation featuring the aforementioned four, Wilson, and possibly revitalized starter Elizardo Ramirez (who pitched well on Monday against the Nationals) just might be enough to pull out enough wins in this division to beat out the Cardinals or Astros.

Winning this NL Central division is going to be tough. Being in first place with the best record in baseball near the end of April is a great start. No Reds team in history has ever started this strong (most April wins ever) ... now they need to keep it up and finish it this way.

Sunday will mark the finale of the three-game series, weather permitting, with the Reds looking (unexpectedly) for a series sweep. Nothing could be better for this team than to win the finale and take a commanding position in this division. A loss keeps them ahead, but it opens the door for St. Louis (who comes to town on Monday) to get into the lead as well. Elizardo Ramirez will be taking the mound for the Reds against Astros rookie Taylor Buchholz, who has been pitching quite well in only two major league starts. Ramirez wasn't too shabby himself against the Nationals in his last outing last Monday (notching his first ML win), but the Astros will be a real test for Ramirez (as should the Reds be a test for Buchholz).

I wouldn't be surprised to see the offenses have a good day on Sunday, as both pitchers may have a tendency to get flustered easily and give up some runs. Rain is potentially in the forecast, so let's hope the weather holds out for this game to be played.

Friday, April 28, 2006

A Big Series Starts Tonight (Reds vs Astros at GABP)

I plan to be there for the opening game of a crucial three-game series tonight as Roy Oswalt (who single-handedly destroys the Reds' offense) faces off against lefty Brandon Claussen (winless in his career against the Astros). If the cards were ever stacked against a team on a given night, this would be it.

I am heading to the ball park as soon as this is published, so I hope to report on a surprising victory when this game is over. GABP should be rocking tonight.

Go Reds!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Reds Sweep Nationals; Arroyo, Bullpen Combine on One-Hitter

In Wednesday afternoon action, the Cincinnati Reds beat the Washington Nationals on the road to complete a three-game series sweep. Bronson Arroyo, the starting pitcher for the visiting Reds, threw an outstanding ball game, pitching eight innings of one-hit, shutout baseball allowing only two walks on eight strikeouts. His opposition, Nationals' starter Ramon Ortiz, was a Reds' starter last season, but he was overmatched in this game despite allowing five runs (four earned) in six and two-thirds innings of work on seven hits with three walks and six strikeouts.

Arroyo has simply been a star pitcher for this team. His 4-0 start out of the gate is nothing short of amazing for his position as the "third starter" on this team. Granted, he was placed in that spot to vary the righty-lefty-righty sequence that manager Jerry Narron obviously values, but he is pitching every bit as well (if not better) than staff ace Aaron Harang. Brandon Claussen can't hold a candle to Arroyo so far, but he (Claussen) will hopefully redeem himself in a big series against the Astros this weekend. If both Eric Milton and Paul Wilson get to be healthy and pitching like either is capable of pitching, this starting staff may be nearly impressive. I don't have a lot of faith that Dave Williams will hold his rotation spot with Wilson on the horizon not to mention the work that Elizardo Ramirez did in shutting down the Nationals on Monday night as well. As a Reds' fan, I can only hope that Williams doesn't bury the team in a hole every time he pitches so that the bullpen isn't taxed too much or his value diminishes to nothing over the course of the season. This was the team's return for Sean Casey in the Pittsburgh trade (after all).

The Nationals are hardly one of the "star" teams of the National League. They and the Marlins deserve to be cellar dwellars in the NL East. Of course, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who should have been at least somewhat better than they are, are now the worst team in all of baseball with 18 losses and only five wins. The KC Royals are undoubtedly the worst of the American League, but even the Seattle Mariners haven't looked very good so far themselves. This early season is looking like the haves and the have-nots ... making the NL Central race that much more compelling with four teams with better than .600 winning percentages. No other division can make that claim.

I have a sneaky suspicion that the NL Central is going to produce three teams with better than 90 wins this season (and probably a fourth with around 85 wins). One of the three is going to have to go home come playoff time in October -- which one will it be? Smart money would be picking the Astros and Cardinals, particularly given their track records in recent years, to make the cut. Why not pick the Reds, though? The offense is strong, the pitching is strong, the defense has made errors but is passable ... is the pitching going to be decimated by injury as the season rolls along? Will the offense stop scoring runs? Are the Cardinals and Astros that much better at limiting the runs scored by their opposition?

Yes, the Reds pitchers have allowed 121 runs this season (109 earned) through today's game. In three games, the runs allowed were greater than 10 (Opening Day - 16, 4/18 - 12, and 4/22 - 11). Factor out those games and the total runs allowed equals (121 - 16 - 12 - 11 = ) 82 in 19 games. The Astros have allowed 90 runs through two fewer games (have not played yet today) while scoring 107 runs. Similar to the Reds, the Astros have allowed greater than 10 runs on three occasions (4/4 - 11, 4/8 - 12, and 4/18 - 12). Doing the same math, the reduced result is 72 runs in 17 games. The Cardinals have allowed 80 runs through today's 4-3 win over the Pirates. They have given up 10+ runs only once (12, on 4/18 ) with remarkably consistent pitching over 21 games. 82 / 19 = 4.316 (Reds) 72 / 17 = 4.235 (Astros) 68 / 20 = 3.400 (Cardinals) On offense, the Reds have scored 136 runs in 22 games, the Astros have scored 107 runs in 20 games, and the Cardinals have scored 105 runs in 21 games.

136 / 22 = 6.182 (Reds)
107 / 20 = 5.350 (Astros)
105 / 21 = 5.000 (Cardinals)

In short, the numbers paint an interesting picture for each club. The differentials between runs scored and runs allowed is usually a meaningful statistic for a team's success. Here they are for these three:

6.182 - 4.316 = 1.866 (Reds)
5.350 - 4.235 = 1.115 (Astros)
5.000 - 3.400 = 1.6 (Cardinals)

If these numbers mean anything (which, realistically, they don't mean much with only 1/8 of the season complete), the Reds and the Cardinals are superior to the Astros. The offense for the Reds is best while the pitching for the Cardinals is superior. I am actually surprised that the Cardinals haven't scored more runs than they have (with Albert Pujols in the order), but their pitching has been stellar. This NL Central race could (and should) be the most exciting in the majors this year.

How About Those Reds?!? Winning Continues Over Nats in 6-5 Victory on Tuesday Night

The Reds are truly on a roll through their first 21 games this season. With a stellar 14-7 record, only two teams (the NL Central-leading Astros and the AL Central-leading White Sox) have a better record (14-6). What the Reds have set themselves up to do is something they haven't done in over a decade -- compete for the playoffs.

Yes, I know what you may be thinking (assuming you're reading this, of course). The Reds are supposed to be a bad team and all of those baseball experts said this team should be in the cellar of the NL Central, competing with the likes of the Marlins or Nationals for worst record in the NL overall. Well, if any conclusions can be drawn so far, they (baseball's "experts") all forgot that this team has offense, lots of it.

It is easy to jump on the bandwagon, but this author (yours truly) wrote in a post on March 27:

"I am a bit partial to my Reds in the Central, but I am realistic enough to know that Cincinnati lacks the pitching to be a real contender here. I DO believe they are better than the last place team, though, as I keep seeing predicted for them. Put them somewhere around mid-pack, but the offense has a lot of firepower to score some runs. Combine the lackluster starters with the extra run support ... either equals lots of high-scoring losses or possibly surprising wins."

How true has that been so far? Yes, people will point to the number of runs allowed by the pitching staff, but it has been an all-or-nothing effort at moments this season. The team has allowed double-digits in runs scored on three occasions this year (Opening Day 16-7 loss to the Cubs, 12-6 loss on 4/18 to the Marlins, and 11-0 loss on 4/22 at Milwaukee). Factor out that the sum of the runs in those losses (16 + 12 + 11 = 39 runs) and the overall runs allowed at 121 (of which 109 are earned) doesn't look nearly as ugly. Meanwhile, the offense has scored 131 runs (7 + 6 + 0 = 13, in those losses). The differential excluding those three games: 118 runs scored, 82 runs allowed (lesser amount earned). It paints a different picture of the pitching when you factor out the "blow-ups".

The pitching on this team still has question marks. Aaron Harang has emerged, as I hoped he might, as the staff ace. Bronson Arroyo, who most knew very little about coming from Boston, has been equally amazing. Eric Milton, who now sits on the DL, had two great starts but then one bad one. If the bad one was injury-related, I can forgive that one; otherwise, it raises the flag on a pitcher we saw struggle last year. Brandon Claussen is a roller coaster ride -- sometimes good and sometimes not. If Claussen finds the consistency from game to game, he will help this team immensely. Dave Williams, as the fifth starter, has been nothing short of bad. Consider that last night's game -- his fourth start of the season -- was his best to date: four runs allowed in five innings on nine hits with one walk and no strikeouts for his first win. His first start was actually better (six innings with three runs on five hits with two walks and three strikeouts), but he didn't get the win. The two starts in between (against St. Louis and Milwaukee) were awful -- three innings each and six runs allowed both times.

On the bullpen side, there are good stories and bad ones. I don't have time to hit them all right now, but Todd Coffey for one has been a bright spot. As much as I criticize David Weathers, he has done better than I would have expected as well. Kent Mercker, the veteran, has done consistently well. Matt Belisle and Rick White have comparable numbers, but both have had good and bad appearances. Mike Burns and Chris Hammond have both struggled, but Hammond has shown some signs of getting the ship righted (maybe). Burns is still a big question mark to me personally.

The injury front remains (fingers crossed) the general bright spot. Except for Ken Griffey Jr and now Eric Milton on the DL, the team remains relatively injury free. Junior is probably more precautionary than anything, while Milton is also a smart precautionary move before further injury could happen. Paul Wilson just might be back on the big stage in the near future, and his past history is something we should all look forward to getting back. If he is anywhere near where he was for much of 2004, we could all be happy.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Reds Knock Off the Nationals; 4-1 on Road Trip, 13-7 Overall

Can this possibly be the Cincinnati Reds team we heard so much about coming into this season as the "worst" team in the NL Central? How did a team this *bad* manage to have nearly double the number of wins (13) as losses (7)? While most of the analysts / experts looked at the Reds' pitching and believed it would be downfall of the team, they didn't factor that the pitching would come through big (so far) and the offense could make up for some of the relief pitching's deficiencies as well.

With Monday night's victory of 4-2 over the hometown Nationals in Washington, D.C., the Reds have won their last two, five of their last seven, and, notably, have lost only one series (and two games in a row, at St. Louis) to date. The Reds have won their series with an explosive offense and undoubtedly an unexpected series of quality starts from their unheralded starting pitchers.

Writer's Note: I have been diving into the individual game play-by-play efforts, but I have realized that this is not my value to you the reader as the writer. Of course, without feedback, I am not certain what part of this Journal is most liked by prospective fans; however, I can say with a relative degree of certainty that the play-by-play content would slant my writing more towards the strict news of the game than of game and team analyses. I won't expound on my observational shift any more than this, but I believe that discontinuing my strict adherence to individual game action and more towards overall stats and performance will serve everyone better. Enough said ...

There are two games remaining in this three-game series against the Nationals, and the first game was a very positive indicator that even a replacement cog (Elizardo Ramirez, a call-up from AAA to replace injured Eric Milton) can help do the job. I hate to make comparisons between teams, but this team is bearing eerie similarities to the 1990 World Series Championship team to me. That team, like this one, was unheralded and not expected to finish better than mid-pack in the NL West (back in the two divisions of the day) while, as memory serves, two division rivals (with back-to-back World Series appearances to their credit -- the 1988 champion LA Dodgers and the 1989 runner-up SF Giants) were the clear favorites to do better than the Reds.

History can be an ally or an enemy depending on how history chooses to repeat itself. The 1990 club started strong and stayed steady the rest of the way. They won their division that year wire-to-wire, which had been done only one other time (1984 Detroit Tigers) and has not been done since. For the 2006 Reds to win the NL Central title this year, it won't be happening wire-to-wire, given that they aren't in first right now (1/2 game behind in second). While it doesn't take a first-place all season position to win a Division crown, overcoming your two biggest rivals (the division-leading Houston Astros and the two-time defending division winner St. Louis Cardinals) is a big obstacle for a team like the Cincinnati Reds. If anything, it will be the mental demons and the potential for physical injuries to take their toll as the season progresses.

Consider this: the Reds haven't had a winning season since 2000, the first year that Ken Griffey, Jr. was a Red (and was healthy for a whole season). They finished a very strong (and surprising) second only one year earlier (1999) in losing in a play-in game for the Wild Card spot to the New York Mets (who had the same 96-66 record) This franchise has not seen the post-season since 1995, when they were swept out by the Atlanta Braves. For a team that was so successful throughout the 1970's as well as competitive for much of the late 1980's and early 1990's, the intervening years from 1995 to last season (2005) have produced some mediocre results. Six seasons with less than 80 wins (the last five, notably, in that category) and two years with more than 90 losses (2001 and 2003) have been a blow to most loyal fans.

The franchise hadn't lost more than 90 games in a season before 2001 going all the way back to 1984, the year when Pete Rose came back to Cincinnati to become a player-manager and break the all-time hits record. The last Reds dry spell for success was that period, between 1980 (an 89-win season) and 1985 (another 89-win season), when the team managed only 66 wins (1981 - strike shortened year), 61 (1982 - worst year in team history with 101 losses), 74 (1983) and 70 (1984) wins in those respective years.

I would write more about the subject now, but I am pressed for time. Stay tuned for more analysis with this club, as I believe the winning in 2006 is not over yet. I eagerly anticipate what will happen when Houston comes to Cincinnati this weekend for a three-game series starting on Friday followed by a short two-game series with St. Louis immediately after.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Reds Rocking in the top of the 6th, up 8-0 against Brewers in Milwaukee

Scoring update: This is a real quickie ... no sooner did I hit "Post" on the last writing, the Reds just had back-to-back hits to drive four more runs in against the Brewers and now lead 8-0. I feel a bit more confident for Harang to be able to close this one out today.

Brewers Bash Homers in 11-0 Romp over Reds; Reds lead 3-0 through five innings Sunday

The game on Saturday night was so one-sided for the home team Brewers that the Reds had absolutely no chance. Writing much about this game is somewhat pointless at this point (midday Sunday), especially since the game today is already under way.

What is most notably about how the Reds lost to the Brewers in the 11-0 defeat on Saturday was that records were matched for homers allowed and/or scored in an inning. Starter Brandon Claussen has the dubious distinction of tying a MLB record for homers allowed in an inning -- four -- which he did in the fourth inning. The Brewers tied a record as well, in hitting five homers in the fourth inning (one off reliever Chris Hammond). The Reds were trailing by three runs (3-0) before the fourth inning had even come to pass, but this was hardly a game that Cincinnati was going to win with the offense managing only four hits and no runs off starter (and winner) Dave Bush (2-1) of Milwaukee. Claussen's record slips to 1-2.

Overall, there is more *bad* news to share on the injury front. The starting rotation took a blow, with the announcement that Eric Milton, the Reds' fourth starter, is going on the DL with a knee injury. Unfortunately, this is not the first injury of this kind for Milton, who will have his left knee cartilage scoped and expected to be back in 2-3 weeks time. Milton had two solid outings in his first two starts of the season before being shelled on Tuesday this past week by the lowly Florida Marlins in only four and a third innings (allowing nine runs). The Reds have recalled 2005's spot starter Elizardo Ramirez back from AAA to take Milton's spot on the roster until he returns. Ramirez should be starting Monday's game against the Nationals while Aaron Harang short-cycled the start today (Sunday) against the Brewers on four days rest.

Early signs on the game today are that Harang is having another effective start, allowing no runs on only two hits through five innings so far. The game is still in progress as I write this, with the Reds leading 3-0 in the top of the sixth and threatening to score yet again against Brewers' reliever Justin Lehr after starter Doug Davis allowed three runs in his five innings of work. Davis was extemely erratic, allowing an awful nine walks in those five innings.

NEWSFLASH: One final quick update before I send this post -- Austin Kearns was just hit by a pitch to force in a run with the bases loaded. The score is now 4-0 with the bases still loaded and only one out. Pray for no double play ... the full game summary will come later.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Reds Rolling ... Brewers Bowled Over By Arroyo, Reds Win 3-1

This is one of the late night's when the real me has to shine. Although I may have my select few "loyal" readers, you might as well see a post like this one every once in a while.

The key point of Friday night's game at Milwaukee is that the pitching once again came through to deliver an exceptional performance. Bronson Arroyo, who struggled against the Cardinals, rebounded for a strong eight innings against the Brewers at Miller Park to notch his third win in only four decisions (3-1). The Reds' record now stands at a robust 11-6 after notching their third straight victory (the first against the Marlins on Wednesday afternoon at home and the last two against the Brewers on the road).

What I find most impressive is that the Reds have been winning some key games, like the one on Friday night, without surviving on the long ball and their power offense alone. Saturday afternoon will see the third game of the series (and the road trip) with a guaranteed split at worst against the home team Brewers. Brandon Claussen (1-1), coming off a strong outing on Monday night against the Marlins, will take on Dave Bush (1-1) in a game that *might* actually see some pitching again for both sides.

The Reds are only one-half game behind the first place Astros in the NL Central. Can you Reds' fans out there reading this start believing that this team might actually be better than the predictions of a last place finish? I like what I am seeing so far, without a doubt.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Reds Leading 12-8; Heading to the 9th (Survive Scare in Bottom of 8th)

Things were looking shaky after the Reds had taken a commanding 12-6 lead coming into the bottom of the eighth inning. I hate to leave at this stage of the game, but the bed is calling my name so that I can be refreshed for work in the morning.

This has been an up-and-down game already. The Reds led through the middle of the second, the Brewers led from the bottom of the second until the top of the fifth, and then the Reds blew it open in the top of the sixth. After a scoreless seventh for both teams, the Brewers threatened (and scored a couple) in the bottom of the eighth, but, at the moment I write this, the inning just ended on back-to-back strikeouts by reliever Todd Coffey of Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder to end the threat. The box score looks like this:

REDS 1 1 0 3 2 5 0 0 -- 12
Brewers 0 3 3 0 0 0 0 2 -- 8

The Reds get one more chance to score more "insurance" runs, but the bullpen should be able (fingers crossed) to survive one final inning of work.

The final report (win pending?) will be issued in the morning.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Two Games, Two Outcomes: Milton, Harang Both Rocked; Reds Lose First but Win Second, Series

Wednesday's afternoon special was a sweet ending for the Cincinnati Reds in an up-and-down home series against the lowly Florida Marlins. The Reds had no problems scoring runs against an inexperienced Marlins pitching staff, but, in the same vein, they had trouble keeping Florida from scoring as well. With the exception of an excellent pitching effort in Monday night's 9-1 win, the last two games saw Reds' pitching give up a whopping 20 runs combined (12 in Tuesday night's loss and 8 today). Most of the time, you don't expect to win the games where you give up six or more runs, but today was certainly an exception.

The biggest outage on Tuesday and Wednesday was the starting pitching. Starters Eric Milton and Aaron Harang, who both had looked strong in each of their last two outings, were far from perfect in their respective games. Milton allowed nine of the 12 runs on Tuesday (more than enough to take blame for the 12-6 loss in only four and a third innings), and Harang allowed five runs in only four innings today (which didn't seem nearly as bad when the offense produced four runs in the bottom of that inning (including the pinch hitter, Dan Ross, for Harang)).

Given how truly ugly the effort was on Tuesday, saying that the final score was 12-6 tells plenty about the story without the gory details. The offense would have had to produce an amazing effort to make up for the nine runs that Milton had allowed, without even considering the other three runs the bullpen allowed after him. The win went to reliever Josh Johnson (1-1) after starter Jason Vargas failed to get through the fifth inning in a game he should have been able to win. Eric Milton (2-1) chalked up his first season loss after he was so good in the first two outings. The most damage to Milton was in his season ERA, which ballooned to 6.50 after this game. The offensive highlights for both teams were homers, with three each for Florida (two for Hanley Ramirez and one for Dan Uggla) and for Cincinnati (one each for Dave Ross, Rich Aurilia, and Edwin Encarnacion). The Reds got no closer than the a four-run margin in this one (6-2 after two and 10-6 after five).

In today's game, Harang started innocently enough, allowing solo homers to Miguel Cabrera in the first and Miguel Olivo in the second. The score stayed 2-0 through the third inning, as Dontrelle Willis was holding the Reds scoreless. Harang ran into his wall in the top of the fourth, as he allowed a three-run homer to Uggla with both Willis and Ramirez scoring. Harang looked like he might escape that inning unscathed (as there were two outs when Uggla came to bat), but he did manage to strike out Cabrera to end the inning. At that point, the Marlins led 5-0.

The Reds finally managed to chip away at Willis in the bottom of the fourth. After Kearns grounded out, Scott Hatteberg singled to right. Hatteberg was forced out at second on a fielder's choice by Encarnacion. With two outs and a runner (Encarnacion) at first, Jason LaRue walked. This forced the hand of manager Jerry Narron to pinch hit for Aaron Harang with Dave Ross. Ross walked to load the bases. Willis looked like he might escape the inning when Ryan Freel knocked one back at him, but Freel beat the throw to first for an infield hit and a run scored. Then, Willis uncorked a wild pitch, advancing all of the runners and allowing a second run to score. With Ross now on third and Freel on second, Branden Phillips cracked a single to right, scoring them both. Aurilia grounded out innocently to Willis to end the inning, but the damage had been done, as the Reds now trailed only 5-4.

Mike Gosling, who had been recalled from AAA Louisville after Jason LaRue was activated off the DL, came in for his first appearance in relief. While the fifth inning was a good one for both Gosling and his counterpart Willis (no runs allowed by either), Gosling struggled in the sixth. He allowed a lead-off homer by Reggie Abercrombie and then walked Willis. Ramirez grounded out to the shortstop Aurilia, allowing Willis to advance to second. At that point, Narron brought on Rick White from the bullpen and sent Gosling to the bench. White did not impress -- allowing a single to Uggla (runners at the corners) and then another single (infield) to Cabrera loaded the bases. Josh Willingham knocked up a single up the middle into center, scoring both Willis and Uggla and stretching the lead back to four at 8-4. Thankfully, with Cabrera on second and Willingham on first, White got Mike Jacobs to pop out to shallow left center (the runners could not move up) and then was saved by a great run-saving play by Adam Dunn to knock off Cabrera trying to score on Olivo's single to left.

The Reds would not score in the bottom of the sixth off Willis as the game stayed at 8-4, but they began to chip away at the lead in the bottom of the seventh. With Willis gone (pinch hit for in the top of the inning), Ricky Nolasco came in to pitch. Nolasco hit lead-off batter Freel with a pitch and then gave up a single to Phillips to put runners on first and second with nobody out. Aurilia flied out to left for the first out, bringing up Dunn. Dunn grounded out softly to the second baseman Uggla, while Freel dashed around third and scored on the play (with Phillips moving to third). This "manufactured" run brought the score to 8-5. Austin Kearns ended the scoring with an infield pop out for the final out.

In the top of the eigth, David Weathers was pitching (after coming into the game one inning earlier and knocking off the Marlins in order). Weathers managed to work his way out of his own mess in this one. After allowing a double to Ramirez, Uggla's bunt attempt popped out to LaRue behind the plate. Cabrera was intentionally walked, but then Willingham was "unintentionally" walked. Now, with the bases loaded and only one out, Weathers struck out Mike Jacobs swinging and got Olivo to line out sharply to Phillips at second base, ending the threat.

The bottom of the eigth saw the Reds finally regain control in this game. Hatteberg was walked by pitcher Nolasco, then Encarnacion singled into left field. With runners on first and second, LaRue lined a single into left to load the bases. Felipe Lopez was brought out as the pinch hitter, which led to a pitching change by Marlins' skipper Joe Girardi for Matt Herges to replace Nolasco. Lopez hit one back up the middle, deflected slightly by Herges, with Uggla unable to get anyone out on the play. Two runs (Hatteberg and Encarnacion) scored on the play, as Uggla threw the ball away trying to come home to get Hatteberg. LaRue moved up to third and Lopez to second. Freel hit a ball to shortstop, which ended up leaving LaRue caught in no-man's land between third and home. Fortunately, the throw went to third then to the catcher, as both Lopez and Freel moved to third and second, respectively, when LaRue was finally tagged out. Phillips grounded out to short, but Lopez scored on the play to tie the game at 8-8. Aurilia popped out to second to end the inning as play moved to the ninth.

Todd Coffey took over for Weathers in the top of the ninth, as Lopez stayed in the game at shortstop while Aurilia moved over to second for Phillips. Coffey pitched beautifully, getting a ground out by Eric Reed then strike outs of Abercrombie and pinch hitter Wes Helms. In the bottom of the frame, Todd Wellemeyer took over for Herges. He allowed a walk to Dunn followed by a fly out of Kearns to right. Hatteberg then singled sharply to right to put runners on first and second with only one out. Encarnacion came to the plate and knocked a hard hit down the left field line, scoring the winning run of Dunn on the play and being credited with a walk-off RBI double in the process.

Coffey (1-0) earned the win while Wellemeyer (0-1) chalked up the loss. It was interesting (if not refreshing) to see the Reds score nine runs without the benefit of a long ball. Manufacturing runs is a great asset, and this team proved it could do it today with the likes of Freel, Encarnacion, and company without a homer from Dunn, Kearns, and the like.

Tomorrow sees the Reds (9-6) travel to Milwaukee to face a struggling Brewers club, which started strong out of the gate but has stumbled to .500 (7-7) in the past few games. Dave Williams (0-2, ugly 8.00 ERA after his SL start) will face Tomo Ohka (1-1, solid 3.00 ERA) on Thursday night in a series that should test the mettle of this club. It promises to be interesting if nothing else.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Reds Roll to Easy Win Over Marlins, 9-1

In Monday night's action, the Reds cruised over the hapless Marlins in the first game of a three-game series (and brief homestand) in a 9-1 final. Cincinnati started the offense early off Florida starter Brian Moehler (former Red himself) while the Reds' starter Brandon Claussen was able to set it on automatic pilot.

After the Marlins went quietly (1-2-3) in the top of the first, the Reds offense went to work. While leadoff man Ryan Freel grounded out to shortstop, Felipe Lopez doubled to right. Adam Dunn, who has thrived in the three spot all year, crushed a two-run homer to center to score Lopez and himself. Austin Kearns followed with a walk, but Scott Hatteberg ended the scoring threat with a double play to end the inning. The Reds led 2-0 after one inning.

In the second, the Marlins offense was quiet once again (a lonely single by Wes Helms in the top of the inning), and the Reds offense kept clicking. Javier Valentin led off with a double into the left-center gap. Edwin Encarnacion reached on an error by Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez, allowing Valentin to reach third. With runners at the corners and nobody out, Brandon Phillips, the recent acquisition from Cleveland, sparked the scoring with a doulbe to left, allowing both runners (Valentin and Encarnacion) to score. The pitcher's spot was next, but Claussen failed to get down a sacrifice bunt and struck out. Ryan Freel came up next and helped to redeem Claussen's failure by hitting a double that scored Phillips. Freel was caught stealing third for the second out of the inning, and Lopez followed with a ground out to end the scoring. The Reds led 5-0 after the second inning, and the rout was on.

Neither team threatened to score in the third, fourth, and fifth innings, but the Marlins threatened for the first time in top of the sixth. Ramirez singled to center followed by a fly out to right by Dan Uggla. Miguel Cabrera then doubled deep into the right-center gap, wisely cut off by Kearns and flipped to Freel, who fired the ball back into the infield to save a potential run by Ramirez. With runners on second and third in scoring position with only one out, Claussen single-handedly ended the threat. He stabbed a bouncing ball back at him by Josh Willingham that could have scored both runners, but he looked them both back before firing on to first for the second out. Then, on the next batter (Helms), he knocked down another comebacker to the mound and fired again to first to end the inning. The score remained 5-0.

In the bottom of the sixth, the Reds scoring peaked again, as Kearns led off with a solo homer into the right field stands. Hatteberg followed with a double down the left field line, and then Valentin followed with a singled line to left that put runners on the corners. At that point, Marlins manager Joe Girardi had seen enough and brought on Randy Messenger to relieve Moehler. Messenger got a ground ball to shortstop, but Ramirez could only throw on to first to get the fielder's choice first out while Hatteberg scored and Valentin moved to second. Phillips, the run-producer of the second inning, made a repeat performance with a single into right that drove home Valentin and gave Phillips his third RBI of the night. Claussen struck out for the second out while Freel hit a liner to center that ended the inning. The Reds led by a wide margin, 8-0, after six innings.

The seventh inning came and went quietly while the Reds manager Jerry Narron decided that Claussen had pitched enough in this game by relieving Mike Burns for him in the eighth (and double-switched him with Quinton McCracken for Dunn in left). Burns didn't start the inning well, allowing an infield single to Ramirez, who then advanced to second on a throwing error by Lopez. Burns then walked Uggla before allowing an infield single to Cabrera (Lopez was unable to force out Uggla at second on the play) and loading the bases with nobody out. Willingham came to the plate but failed to deliver a major punch as he grounded to shortstop and into a 6-4-3 double play. Ramirez scored on the play, but only Uggla remained on the bases (at third) with two outs. Things stayed interesting for another batter as Helms was hit by a pitch that got away from Burns, but Burns closed out the inning with a fly ball out to right by Chris Aguila. The Reds continued to lead, now 8-1, through seven and half innings. In the bottom of the inning, Joe Borowski came on in relief of Franklyn German (who had pitched a scoreless seventh) and started off much like his predecessors had. Encarnacion led off with a double to left, and the game's star, Brandon Phillips, came up with another RBI hit, a single into left, that scored Encarnacion and advanced himself to second with the throw to the plate. The rest of the inning was a quiet one as McCracken, Freel, and Lopez went down in succession, and the Reds led 9-1 after eight innings.

In the final frame, the Reds brought on Chris Hammond, who had struggled in earlier appearances this season, in a non-save situation to help build his confidence in getting some outs. Reggie Abercrombie flied out to center followed by a strike out of Matt Treanor. With two outs, Hammond looked ready to knock off batter Matt Cepicky, but Cepicky managed to single up the middle into center to extend the inning one more batter. Hammond closed out the game in style by ringing up Ramirez on a swinging strike out.

Brandon Claussen (1-1) notched his first win of the year, while his opposing number Brian Moehler (0-3) remains winless with his balloonish 13.14 ERA. Claussen delivered a quality start in this one, pitching seven strong innings while allowing only five hits and no runs on seven strikeouts versus two walks. Moehler's line was no so pretty: five innings with nine hits and eight runs (seven earned) on two walks and two strikeouts with two homers allowed. Messenger certainly didn't help Moehler by allowing both inherited runners in the sixth to score and boost Moehler's earned run total, but the runs really were moot in an eight-run loss.

The Reds record moves back to three games over .500 at 8-5, as they remain tied for third in the NL Central with the Cardinals behind the Cubs (a half-game ahead at 8-4) and one game behind the division-leading Astros (9-4). With the exception of the struggling Pirates, the NL Central is full of teams with winning records, from the Astros at the top to the Brewers (7-6) in fifth place. Only the AL East can make a similar claim, although the bottom two teams (both surprising, as the Yankees and Blue Jays) are at .500 (6-6). The cellar dwellars are defining themselves already (not surprisingly) as the Royals (again), the Marlins (just no depth and no payroll), the Nationals (despite doing well last season), and Pittsburgh (hindered by a poor start and not getting better with injuries).

In Tuesday's game, the Marlins should be sending Jason Vargas (1-1, 5.73 ERA) to the mound to counter Reds starter Eric Milton (2-0, 2.63 ERA), who is hoping to continue his hot start to this young 2006 season. The Reds are in a good position to win this series, either taking at least one or both of the next two games, before heading off to Milwaukee for a longer four-game set on the road. A series sweep would be the best-case scenario as the upcoming road trip may do some damage to the win-loss record by this point next week. After the Brewers, the Reds will be facing the Nationals in D.C. but may do well there against that struggling team.

All in all, fans should be pleased with the performance of this team so far. While results have been far from perfect, the record is better than some of us may have been led to believe was possible if the experts were to be believed.

[Reposted at (Ramblings of Rentz: The RentzFree Sports Journal), at The Sporting News .com]

Pujols Packs a Punch; Three Homers Lead Cardinals to Win Over Reds

In a game that easily could have gone in either team's favor, the St. Louis Cardinals came out victorious over the Cincinnati Reds in an 8-7 slugfest. The offenses for both teams traded blows throughout Sunday's game in a fashion that was equally exciting but a polar opposite to the pitching duel that was seen in Friday night's 1-0 Reds' victory. When the dust settled, the Reds walked away more than bit dejected knowing they could have won the series, but the Cardinals got a huge team confidence boost thanks to star first baseman Albert Pujols in this one to get back to two games over .500 and tied with the Reds in third place in the NL Central.

Despite quality starts by both of the starters in this game (Bronson Arroyo for the Reds and Mark Mulder for the Cardinals) in previous games this season, this game was somewhat disastrous for both pitchers in only five innings of work that both managed to survive. Arroyo in his five innings allowed five runs (all earned) on six hits with an ugly three walks (after none in his previous two starts) and two homers back-to-back to Pujols and Scott Rolen in the bottom of the fifth. Mulder was only slightly more effective in allowing no walks but was hardly dominant in giving up four runs (all earned) on a whopping 10 hits and also two back-to-back homers to Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns in the top of the same fifth inning.

The Reds had struck first in this game with an RBI single by Kearns in the top of the first to score Ryan Freel. The Cards struck back in the bottom of that inning with a a bases-clearing, two-run triple by John Rodriguez that scored Pujols and David Eckstein. Both starting pitchers seemed to settle down through the next three innings until the fifth inning homers forced both out. Neither team scored in the sixth, and the Cardinals scored next in the bottom of the seventh on the second homer of the game (a solo shot) by Pujols. The score was 6-4 at that point through seven innings.

The Reds regained offensive control in the eighth inning thanks to a pinch-hit, leadoff homer by new acquisition Quinton McCracken. The Cards relieved Adam Wainwright, who had come in an inning earlier, with Randy Flores, who got the first out of the inning with a ground out by pinch hitter Javier Valentin. Flores then walked Ryan Freel before being relieved for Braden Looper (a double switch with Hector Luna to second base) after a fielding error by Juan Encarnacion allowed Freel to get to third and Felipe Lopez to be safe at first. Rich Aurilia drove both runners hom with a double that put the Reds back ahead for the first time since the fifth with the score at 7-6.

The Cardinals looked ready to strike back in the bottom of the eighth as Todd Coffey struggled a bit as the new reliever. After allowing a single to Encarnacion to start the inning, Encarnacion was caught stealing on a throw down by Valentin to second base. With one out, Luna singled, then Yadier Molina doubled, and Skip Schumaker was intentionally walked to load the bases (and set up a potential inning-ending double play). So Taguchi, the next batter, flied out harmlessly to shallow right, failing to score the runners. Coffey survived the inning as Eckstein flied out to Dunn in left field, and the score remained 7-6.

After the Reds went quietly 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, David Weathers was brought in to close out the Reds' victory. In an interesting move that reflected his hitting ability, Tony LaRussa pinch hit for one pitcher (Looper) with another pitcher (normal starter Jason Marquis). Marquis singled to center, proving his crafty manager right once again. That setup the defining moment of the game, as Albert Pujols stepped in to face Weathers as the potential winning run.

Pujols did not have a distinct advantage over Weathers in the at-bat, although he had previously homered against the closer when Weathers was a Met in the 2002 season at Shea Stadium but was only one for his last four (a single) in 2005 against him as a Red. With one swing of the bat on Sunday, Pujols crushed Weathers' offering deep to left field for a walk-off two-run homer that delivered a gift-wrapped win to the home team.

The Cardinals won the series two games to one, and both teams now have identical 7-5 win-loss records through their respective first 12 games. While the Reds could have used a boost to their confidence by knocking off the Cardinals and winning the series on the road (which they haven't done in some time, despite some success at home), they still managed to split their road trip with a 3-3 record after winning two of three at Chicago before the St. Louis series.

The Reds now must turn their attention to the visiting Florida Marlins, who come to town for a three-game series. This will be a very short homestand for Cincinnati as they must travel to Milwaukee for a tough four-game road series against the rebuilt Brewers (same 7-5 record and only one home loss) followed by a three-game set in Washington against the struggling Nationals (only 4-9 and winless at home so far). The positive for the Reds in this upcoming ten-game span is that only the Brewers have a winning record and the Marlins (worst) and Nationals (third-worst) have a combined 7-17 record to date. Those two teams just squared off this past weekend, with the Nationals taking two of three from the very inexperienced Marlins.

In tonight's (Monday) game, the Reds will send Brandon Claussen (0-1, with a somewhat deceptive 5.40 ERA) against Brian Moehler (0-2, with a not-so-deceptive 13.50 ERA). Moehler is 0-3 in his career starts against the Reds with a balloonish 7.06 ERA and .366 BAA. Claussen has only one career start against the Marlins but is 1-0 with no runs allowed in that one game. While this match-up tonight should clearly favor the home team, the Reds should leave nothing to chance with their depleted bullpen giving up a lot of runs in the past two games.

A complete game (or, at minimum, seven plus innings effort) by Claussen could relieve a lot of effort the bullpen has put into recent games. The offense could explode against Marlins' pitching at GABP this season, so let the fireworks begin! Look for the Reds to rebound and win at least two games in this series (with the Willis / Harang matchup on Wednesday the most intriguing) if not sweep them right out of town.

[reposted on The Sporting News at (aka Ramblings of Rentz: The RentzFree Sports Journal)]

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Cardinals Crush Reds in 9-3 Offensive Explosion

This was one of those games that you knew wasn't going to be good for the visiting team from the early going. Although the Reds struck first on a towering solo homer by Adam Dunn in the top of the first, things quickly went downhill in the bottom of that inning.

Dave Williams, the Reds' fifth starter and arguably the weakest candidate to keep the role for the rest of the season, was burned early and often in his short three innings of work on the day. His line score tells the story: 3 IP, 6 hits, 6 ER, 3 BB, and 2 KK with 2 HR allowed. His counterpart was the Cardinals' fifth starter, Sidney Ponson. Ponson is hardly a fifth starter on most pitching staffs, considering he once was near the top of the Baltimore Orioles rotation, but his last couple of years have been a little rough after having 17 wins in 2003 (between Baltimore and San Francisco). With losing records of 11-15 and 7-11 in each of the past two seasons, one might wonder why the Cardinals invested in Ponson, but, if he finds his 2003 form, he is a better fifth starter than many teams have in the two or three spot.

Williams was rocked in the first inning by a series of hits that scored three runs in the frame. After David Eckstein grounded out, So Taguchi doubled and Albert Pujols walked. Then, Scott Rolen walked as well. With the bases loaded and only one out, Juan Encarnacion popped out to first. Williams looked like he might escape major damage until Yadier Molina singled back up the middle, allowing both Taguchi and Pujols to score. Then, Hector Luna singled to left to drive in Rolen before Skip Schumaker ended the inning with a flyout to left.

The second inning was similar to the first for the Cardinals, as Eckstein reacked on a single with one out. Taguchi struck out for the second out. That brought up Reds' killer Pujols, who proceeded to homer to left, a two-run shot, that started to put the game out of reach at 5-1. The bottom of the third saw Luna homering to left to bring the score to 6-1. That inning marked the end of Williams with only three innings to his credit.

With Matt Belisle's relief in the fourth, both offenses were quiet through the sixth inning. Austin Kearns drove in the second run for the Reds with a single in the top of the seventh, scoring Edwin Encarncion and making the score 6-2. Before the Reds could score any more runs to narrow the margin, reliever Mike Burns came in in the seventh to relieve Belisle. Burns did not fare well, however, as Encarnacion doubled, Molina sacrificed Encarnacion to third, and then Luna drove in Encarnacion with a single (then 7-2). After Schumaker flied out, the Cardinals brought out pinch hitter Scott Spiezio, who promptly delivered the knockout blow with a two-run homer to deep right and made the score 9-2.

The Reds could muster only one lone run in the ninth, making the final score 9-3. There wasn't much positive to discuss on either side of the ball for Cincinnati today, including the so-so pitching and the lack of offense.

The finale of this series tomorrow (Sunday) in Busch stadium is the rubber game of the series and will determine who wins the series. Another Reds' win would be very big to build suspense amongst these best of the best in the NL Central. I like the Bronson Arroyo versus Mark Mulder matchup, but this looks (on paper) to be slightly in favor of the Reds and Arroyo.

The Reds' record going into game play on Sunday is 7-4, still good enough to build some momentum. Best of luck, Redlegs ... this series could be yours.

Friday, April 14, 2006

A Near-Flawless Performance: Reds Blank Cards 1-0, Move to 7-3

After watching Friday night's game in the series opener of the Reds versus the Cardinals in new Busch Stadium, maybe we have seen a Reds team that has found a way to be "new" again themselves. Gone are the bad memories of last year, when any of the contending teams in the NL Central would have cleaned the clocks of the lowly Reds. So far this season, the Reds have faced only division rivals (Cubs five times, Pirates four times, and the Cardinals now once). Would people have guessed that seven of those ten games played would be wins right now, including against previous division front-runner St. Louis?

Friday night was an absolute classic pitching duel where you were waiting to see what happened next and were sad to see somebody have to lose. The truth is you really hope that the opposition loses a close one like this was to bolster your own team's confidence that they can win the big games. The Reds sent Aaron Harang to the mound, coming off a solid outing against the Pirates last Saturday, while the Cardinals countered with reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter, who clearly can pitch in the big games.

Harang and Carpenter hooked up in this one for a "good old-fashioned good one" (as Marty would say) since the starters and the bullpens combined to allow only one run total. Harang (2-1) was the victor in this battle, thanks to some stellar bullpen relief in the eighth inning by Kent Mercker and Todd Coffey. Coffey was particularly strong in striking out Jim Edmonds with the bases loaded and two outs to end a Cardinals threat in the bottom of that inning. Carpenter was the hard-luck loser (1-1) in allowing only one run in eight solid innings. Harang was slightly more impressive, with no runs allowed in seven innings on only four hits with four strikeouts and a single walk (issued to the only batter he faced in the top of the eighth). David Weathers, the default closer for now, knocked out the ninth inning on an inning-ending double play from Yadier Molina to capture his third save in as many chances.

With the victory, the Reds climb to 7-3 and stand alone in first place in the NL Central heading into Saturday's game two of the three-game series against the Cardinals. The Cardinals are now at .500 (5-5) following this loss, which is certainly a slow start for a team that many picked to win the division or at least be a strong wild card contender.

Certainly, over the course of a long baseball season, fortunes can change, but let all of us Reds' fans the world over rejoice that Cincinnati's team is the division leader for now.

Reds Win 2 of 3 from Cubs; 6-3 Record and T-1 in NL Central

Would the experts have guessed that the Reds would have started this well out of the gate? My guess would be no, but they will probably say 'it's early ... wait until June when they start to fade' to cover their pre-season predictions. While a June swoon could still occur, the starting pitching is not looking like the weak link (yet), and the bullpen has looked less shaky on this road trip than it did at home.

The most disconcerting thing on the season at home was the bullpen's lack of relief as well as defensive concerns, which appeared to come and go. In this short road trip so far the bullpen has picked itself up some while the errors have kept coming. Adam Dunn is being compared to former slugger, poor fielder Dave Kingman, who defined the shift to the era of the Designated Hitter being the place to hide the guys who couldn't play in the field. While Dunn has struggled to start the year, he alone hasn't caused all of the team's errors (his have just been the most glaring).

Thursday's series finale at Wrigley Field allowed the Reds to win their second straight series after splitting the two games at GABP with the Cubs to open the campaign. The 8-3 victory looked like the kind of win you would expect from an offensive juggernaut like these Reds have been, and the three runs allowed is much more acceptable versus an average of five or more runs given up during the 2005 season. Eric Milton has truly been a bright spot so far, with a perfect 2-0 record now in two quality starts. Combine the efforts of Milton with Bronson Arroyo's and Aaron Harang's last starts and one can see why the Reds are succeeding. Brandon Claussen struggled in his last start (yesterday), but even he looked good in his first outing last week. Dave Williams has had only one start as the fifth starter, but his outing on Sunday wasn't all that bad (the errors helped to bite him, unfortunately). If these five, or even four of these five, can deliver quality starts 80% of the time, the Reds will win more than their fair share of games.

How did the Reds score their eight runs in Thursday's game? If you have been following along so far, the answer is easy: the long ball. Live by the homer and die by the homer, or so you would think with a flyball pitcher like Milton on the mound and the wind blowing out at Wrigley. In this case the Cubs' pitching was the victim (including starter Victor Zambrano) to the Reds' sluggers. Adam Dunn, Felipe Lopez, and Austin Kearns all hit homers on the day, three-run shots each for Lopez and Kearns, to account for seven of the eight runs. Dunn struck in the first (1-0), Lopez in the third (4-0), and Kearns in the eighth (8-3, the final score, at that point). Milton scored the Reds' only other run without the benefit of someone else's RBI when he hit a triple in the fifth and then scored on a throwing error by Zambrano.

I would go into the Cubs' offense in this one ... but, hey, this is a Reds-related post. Why talk about the Cubs on a day when the Reds outplayed them?!? OK, a little about the Cubs -- Matt Murton, the Cub leftfielder, drove in both earned runs for the team on the day, with the first by a solo homer in the fourth.

Another plus for the Reds in this game: the two relievers (Todd Coffey and Kent Mercker) pitched two and two-thirds innnings allowing no runs on five strikeouts (nothing like five of eight batters being fanned).

Now the attention of this Cincinnati club shifts to division powerhouse St. Louis, who has struggled a bit out of the gate. The Cardinals are tough no matter when or where the Reds play them, so look for this series to be a tough one to win. In Friday's game, the Reds should be sending the staff "ace" Aaron Harang to the mound (who shined in his last outing, despite the poor bullpen support) against the Cardinals' ace Chris Carpenter. Carpenter has dominated the Reds in recent outings, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a Cardinal win in the first game. The series overall will be a tough one, but the Reds might still be able to take two of three (against Mulder and Marquis (or Ponson, depending on the exact rotation)).

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Maddux Shuts Down Reds' Offense; Cubs Win 4-1

The Reds are starting to play the up-and-down ball I grew accustomed to seeing most of last season. Win a game, lose a game, repeat. Granted, the four-game winning streak was quite nice to have after the opening day loss, but with the record now standing at 5-3, this is beginning to look closer to a .500 team type of performance. The game-by-game so far is: 1 loss, 4 wins, 1 loss, 1 win, 1 loss.

Today, the excuse was somewhat legitimate, as the Reds faced an old nemesis, Greg Maddux. Maddux is a Hall of Famer in waiting, so to lose to someone of his caliber is not necessarily something for which to be ashamed. As today's starting pitcher, Maddux blanked the Reds for the first three innings before allowing his only run of the day in the fourth with two outs. He pitched two more scoreless innings before turning it over to the Cubs' bullpen of Scott Eyre and Ryan Dempster, who kept the Reds scoreless in the closing three innings.

Maddux's opposition on the day was Reds' starter Brandon Claussen, who struggled at the outset (two runs in the first inning) and then settled down over his next four innings while still allowing two more runs (only one of them earned). Claussen's first inning alone was too much given the excellence of Cubs' pitching on this day, though. The Reds' scoring chances were few and far between, allowing the Cubs to win easily at 4-1 on the day.

The Reds must now look to claim the rubber game of this series on Thursday as starter Eric Milton takes on Chicago's Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano, as you may remember, was the Opening Day starter at Cincinnati who didn't manage to get out of the fifth inning while allowing five runs and two homers with five walks on the afternoon. Milton's first outing was against the Pirates last Friday night, when he pitched a very strong seven innings and allowed only two runs with no walks. The question for Milton on Thursday might be: is the wind blowing out?

Tomorrow's game should be an excellent finish to the three-game series, and I look for the Reds to pull out this series if Milton delivers another strong start. If the offense has to carry the game, it could get interesting.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cubbies Fall to Reds at Wrigley; Cincinnati at 5-2 (tie for first in NL Central)

This was a great day for the Cincinnati Reds. The offense was even more spectacular than usual, clubbing six homers out of wind-blown Wrigley Field. The pitching was more respectable, allowing only two runs (less than five runs for the first time on the season). Bronson Arroyo, for the second straight start, did the double duty, pitching a heck of a game (no runs allowed on six hits in seven innings of work with no walks and four strikeouts) and belted his second homer in as many games. Who would have guessed that Arroyo would have more home runs than some of the biggest names in the game at this stage of the season? Certainly not this writer ...

With the final score of 9-2, this game was a thorough Reds' win. The offense clicked, the pitching was effective, and just about everything that could have gone right for the visiting team did. If there was one negative to note in the game, Chris Hammond once again did not survive a full inning without allowing a run. This time, though, Hammond was not given the chance to finish what he started, getting the first two outs in the eighth and leaving a runner on first. Rick White came in and allowed a double to Derek Lee that scored Todd Walker (the runner on first), so Hammond was charged with another run to his ridiculously high ERA (72.00). White allowed the only other run of the game on a solo homer by Michael Barrett to lead off the ninth, but he managed to get through the rest of the inning unscathed.

The Reds' offense is certainly worth mentioning, with nine runs scored on the afternoon. Ken Griffey Jr started the day's scoring with solo shot in the first inning. Adam Dunn followed that with a solo shot of his own in the second. The string continued as Arroyo led off with a solo homer in the third, and then Dunn homered again in the fourth. Although the fifth was the first scoreless inning in the game, the sixth was the clincher for scoring. Griffey and Aurilia singled to start the inning and then moved up bases on a passed ball. With first base open, the Cubs pitched cautiously to Dunn, who earned a walk, to bring up Edwin Encarnacion. Even though Dunn had done damage already, Encarnacion provided the big pop with a grand slam off reliever Will Ohman to double the lead from four to eight. Austin Kearns closed out the scoring in the very next at-bat with a solo shot of his own. The score at the middle of the sixth: 9-0.

Winners of five of their last six, the Reds look like a team a far cry from their opening game debacle. Maybe that was exactly the motivation this team needed to prove they were better than that ... but the question remains: Are they this good? They are a team reminiscent of the 2000 Cleveland Indians to me right now, very strong on offense with some pitching question marks. That Indians team made the World Series against the Marlins, so maybe there is some hope for this year's Reds squad yet.

I am certainly enjoying this ride so far, regardless of where it ends.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Pirates Win First Game of Season; Reds Winning Streak Broken at Four

With a little time to recover on this Monday off-day for the Reds, it is a bit easier to reflect on the loss from Sunday to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Given that the Pirates were 0-6 through their first six games, they truly were overdue for a win. They may be one of the "doormats" of the NL Central, but they are not as bad as their record would indicate. The Reds, on the other hand, may be overachieving record-wise through six games (now at 4-2), but the flaws in the pitching staff are still easily observable.

I won't beat a dead horse that pitching will make or break this team, but Sunday was the first time this year that the offense didn't score enough runs to compensate for the pitching. The Reds still have yet to allow less than five runs in a game, and Sunday's game was no exception. In the 5-3 loss, the starting pitcher (Dave Williams) pitched a reasonably good game against his former teammates, allowing three runs (only two earned) on five hits, two walks, and three strikeouts in six innings. Matt Belisle, who showed some vulnerability only a day earlier against the Pirates, was roughed up for two runs on two hits in the seventh, which ended up being the difference in the game. Kent Mercker and Todd Coffey had bright spots for the bullpen on the day, as Mercker struck out the side in the eighth and Coffey had a 1-2-3 outing in the ninth.

Ultimately, the pitching was better than the average has been, but, for the first time this season, the offense just wasn't there. The offensive opportunities were there, but the Pirate bullpen shut down the Reds' scoring for the first time in the series.

Despite the solid start on the season for the Reds, the NL Central is looking pretty top-heavy at this point. Only Pittsburgh has a losing record of the six teams in the division, while St. Louis got back to one game over .500 with a win on Monday. The Cubs are probably overachieving at this point as well, now at 4-1 with their only loss to the Reds in the second game of the season. Now, both teams (the Reds and the Cubs) will be squaring off again, but this time the games will be at the "Friendly Confines" of Wrigley Field. Wrigley could be favorable to Cincinnati's offense, clearly dependent on the wind, but wins on the road by any team can be a challenge. Chicago will hardly go down quietly in this upcoming series, which commences on Tuesday afternoon.

With a day of rest, hopefully the pitching staff gets a chance to regroup and get some rest.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Four Straight for the Reds; Pirates Pounded into Submission (again)

I attend my first Reds' game of the year, and the home team wins their fourth straight game.

Despite getting walloped in the Opening Day game by the Cubs, the last four games have been a welcome surprise. Starting with the win against the Cubs on Wednesday afternoon, the Reds have gone to work by dispatching the typically pesky Pirates over the past three days. However, these Pirates are having their worst start in team history, still winless through six games (0-6). The Reds are clearly moving in the right direction, now standing at 4-1, but the question marks on this team are still there.

Saturday afternoon was the first time this season that I attended a Reds' game in person. The first-person perspective certainly helps when you're writing about a team day after day to see if your perspective of the team has been fair or not. Well, my assessment of this team has been as accurate as I could have imagined. Offense is NOT a problem, with the team scoring at least six runs in each of their first five games and double digits in Saturday's win. Pitching, particularly the bullpen, is a problem.

While the offense is clicking on cylinders, the pitching is allowing runs almost as fast as the offense scores them. Since the pitching staff combined to allow a pathetic 16 runs on Monday, they have done no better than to allow five runs on Thursday as their season-best performance. A little exercise in quick math:

16 + 6 + 5 + 6 + 9 = 42 runs allowed (thankfully, not all earned runs ... but runs nonetheless)
7 + 8 + 6 + 7 + 11 = 39 runs scored

Well, that makes this four-game winning streak a bit depressing. I predicted accurately (unfortunately) that the offense was going to have to win games where the pitching couldn't and that scoring would be pretty prolific in games. I doubt this is the trend for the entire season, but the relief pitching is allowing way too many runs so far.

I can honestly say the starting pitching has been a pleasant surprise. Other than Harang's collapse in the first game, every pitching start since then has been respectable. Bronson Arroyo allowed only 3 ER on Wednesday, Brandon Claussen allowed 3 ER on Thursday, Eric Milton allowed only 2 ER on Friday, and Harang came back to allow 5 ER on Saturday. Harang's 5 ER is a bit deceptive, in my opinion, because he had allowed only 3 runs through 6 2/3 innings and gave over the ball with two runners on in the seventh inning. Unfortunately, Matt Burns, the relief of Harang, promptly allowed those runs to score with only a few pitches to the next batter, who doubled and drove them both in. What I find the most impressive stat of each of these four starters is that they combined to allow zero (0) walks in all of those games. This is in stark contrast to games from last year, where the starters walked batters with regularity.

I would give a bit of analysis of this specific game by now under usual circumstances, but I am posting this summary a lot later than I should have. The key thing to remember in this one: the Reds scored early and often, built a sizable lead, allowed the lead to dwindle away (thanks, bullpen), and hung on for a much closer win than it should have been. The bullpen could be summarized in one word: pathetic. Considering that Aaron Harang struck out 10 batters into the seventh inning, he was controlling the game's scoring for the Pirates. After allowing a two-run homer in the second inning to Jose Castillo and an RBI single by Castillo two innings later, Harang was doing his thing with a comfortable five-run lead (8-3) through the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. In the seventh, the aforementioned Burns relieved Harang and allowed two runs to score (credited to the starter) before ending the half inning with the score at 8-5. The Reds then came back on offense in their half inning to widen the lead thanks to a two-RBI double by Javier Valentin and an RBI single by Ryan Freel, making the score a seamingly untouchable 11-5.

Then came the eighth inning, where reliever Matt Belisle showed poor control, walking two batters around a double by Freddy Sanchez that scored Jason Bay (the first walk). Belisle was able to redeem himself with back-to-back strikeouts of pinch-hitter Craig Wilson and Ryan Doumit. The score was still safe at 11-6 entering the ninth. For the second straight game, Chris Hammond was brought in for relief, and for the second straight game, Hammond failed horribly to provide any relief whatsoever. After retiring Chris Duffy on a flyout to center (the first batter he faced AND his first recorded out this season), Hammond's wheels fell off again. He walked Jack Wilson, allowed a single to Sean Casey, and then loaded the bases with a single to Bay. At that point, Jerry Narron had seen enough and brought in Rick White in what (shockingly) had now become a save situation. White struck out the pinch hitter Jose Hernandez to get the second out and got to two strikes on Sanchez, with the crowd ready to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Instead, Sanchez drove a single to center, scoring both Wilson and Casey and putting Bay on third. With runners on the corners and two outs, the score was 11-8, but, only one pitch later, it was 11-9 when White was charged with a balk. Finally, and mercifully, the game ended with Castillo grounding to short and the subsequent throw to first for the third out.

With a major sigh of relief and some disgust, this game was finally over at 11-9 when the Reds led by as much as 11-5 (six runs) and 8-3 (five runs) earlier in the game. Will this pitching staff ever get it's act together? Are we in store for a LOT more games like the ones we've seen so far? This is a roller coaster ride, to say the least.

I also feel compelled to talk a bit about Ryan Freel, the team's "Mr. Excitement," who seems to get things going on offense just by being in the game. How Freel cannot be justified as an everyday player is truly beyond me. Let's get real here: three games played (he didn't start Opening Day or Thursday's game), seven runs scored, six hits in 11 at-bats, five walks, and five stolen bases. His OBP is ridiculously high combined with his SLG to make an OPS that any player anywhere would envy. Yet, he starts only every other day? I am more confused about Freel's playing time now that the Reds traded for Brandon Phillips from the Indians, yet another second baseman on a team with too many already. Granted, guys like Rich Aurilia and Freel can play multiple positions, but it's not like the other spots (like the outfield) are open either. Some way, somehow, the Reds need Freel in that lineup as much as possible. He is a catalyst on the offense that cannot be taken for granted.

Reds Hang On for Third Straight Win, Rain-Delayed Game Worth the Wait

I am happy to write on this late Friday / really early Saturday that my Cincinnati baseball team managed it's third straight victory in a rain-delayed game with the Pirates. When the game was finally played, the Reds dominated offensively from the opening, leading 5-0 through the early going before the pitching started to show some cracks.

Starting pitcher Eric Milton had a very solid outing, pitching seven strong innnings with only two earned runs allowed on six hits with no walks and three strikeouts. In typical Milton fashion, the only offense came on a home run by ex-Red Sean Casey in the sixth inning, which brought the score to 5-2. The Reds would stretch the lead back to four with Felipe Lopez's second homer of the game in the bottom of the seventh, making the score 6-2.

The bullpen looked to be inheriting an easy win in this one, as Todd Coffey took over for Milton in the top of the eighth. Coffey had a fair outing, allowing a run on two hits in his single inning of work, bringing the margin back to three at 6-3. The Reds would push the margin back to four, with a Dave Ross homer in the bottom of the eighth, making it 7-3.

The usually dependable Chris Hammond came in for relief in the top of the ninth in a non-save situation. Unfortunately, Hammond didn't record an out, with a little help from an error by Adam Dunn out in left. Dunn misplayed a routine single off the bat of Ryan Doumit, after the first batter Jose Castillo had walked, which allowed Castillo to score a run and Doumit to get to second. Hammond was then removed in favor of the default closer, David Weathers. Although Weathers had been dependable in the previous two games, this wasn't his night.

Inheriting the runner at second, Weathers promptly allowed a two-run homer to pinch-hitter Craig Wilson, tightening the margin to 7-5, the smallest margin since the third inning of the game. Nate McClouth struck out as the next batter, the first out of the inning, before Jose Hernandez was walked by Weathers. Jack Wilson pinch-ran for Hernandez while Weathers then proceeded to walk Sean Casey, the next batter. With the tying run (Casey, pinch-run by Chris Duffy) at first and the go-ahead run at the plate (Jason Bay), Weathers had some work to do. Bay is Pittsburgh's biggest offensive weapon, but Weathers managed to get him to ground to third. Rich Aurilia stepped on the bag for the second out, but the relay throw to first, which would ended the game in a double play, pulled first baseman Scott Hatteberg off the bag to continue the inning. Kent Mercker relieved for Weathers, to match-up a lefty versus lefty on the mound and at the plate. Mercker delievered with a game-ending strikeout of Jeremy Burnitz (which was completed with a throw to first on a dropped ball by catcher Ross).

All in all, this was a well-deserved win for the Reds that would have been a crushing blow if it had been blown at the end. Eric Milton (1-0) was the deserving winning pitcher, while his opposing number, Paul Maholm (0-1), suffered the loss. Kent Mercker recorded a solid first save of the season by facing a single batter but in a pressure situation.

With Weathers showing some vulnerability, the Mercker-Weathers tandem may be setting itself up yet again in the bullpen closer-by-committee approach we have seen over the past year. As an aside, I truly hope that Ryan Wagner, the hard-throwing righthander now down in AAA, gets his pitching mastery together to make it back to the big club and help solidify the closer's spot before the season progresses too far. Wagner has the capability to be this team's closer (I have no doubt as one of his biggest supporters) despite falling apart to some extent last season. He was untouchable in the spring and has shown great strikeouts to innings pitched performance in the past. My fingers are crossed to see him back to make for a better duo with the lefty Mercker than does fellow righty Weathers (in this author's humble opinion).

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Reds Notch Two Straight, Knock Off Pirates in Series Opener

My synopsis of this game can be summarized in a few words: offense overcomes offense. The Reds had to come through with another gut-wrencher win in this one, winning for the second straight day, but this time the opponent was different. Unlike the day before, this game was tied late until the Reds managed a 6-5 win over the Pirates.

Starter Brandon Claussen delivered a quality performance, if not stellar, by pitching five innings, allowing only three runs on five hits with no walks and five strikeouts. He did show a bit of erratic control by plunking three batters in that span. His major mistake came in the fourth inning, by allowing a three-run homer to former Red Joe Randa with two on and one out. Claussen had allowed only one hit in the previous three innings of work and was seemingly on cruise control until that fourth inning. The Reds' offense gave enough support of Claussen to put him in line for the win after Edwin Encarnacion pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the fifth with two outs and drove in Scott Hatteberg from second base with a single to center. The score was 4-3 at that point through five innings.

The Reds added an insurance run in the bottom of the next inning, as Reds' slugger Adam Dunn crushed a blast to deep center field with two outs to bring the score to 5-3. The Reds' bullpen seemed to have things under control with scoreless innings by Mike Burns and Rick White in the sixth and seventh innings. Unfortunately, White wasn't so lucky in the eighth inning. After getting the first two batters out with routine ground outs to third, Jose Castillo reached on a single, and the next batter, Ryan Doumit, brought them both home with a game-tying, two-run home run to knot the score at 5-5.

The bottom of the eighth provided the greatest drama in a controversial call on an Adam Dunn single that almost wasn't. With two outs and two runners on, Dunn hit a sinking liner to center that Pirates' centerfielder Chris Duffy caught on a hop while diving, but the second base umpire singled the out, meaning the inning was over. Manager Jerry Narron came out to argue the call as the umpires then huddled but quickly retreated to the dugout as the umpires corrected the errant call. Pirates' manager Jim Tracy argued the overrule to no avail and was ejected for his arguing, but even he would later admit the changed call was the right one. With Dunn's single being credited, Chris Denorfia scored from second on the play, and the Reds retook the lead at 6-5.

The ninth inning was marked by another quality closing effort by David Weathers, shutting the Pirates down in order to mark his second save in as many days. Reliever Rick White, who had blown the lead one inning earlier, was credited with the win (1-0), and reliever Mike Gonzalez (0-1) took the loss after his giving up Dunn's run-scoring single in the eighth.

The series with the Pirates continues on Friday night as Pittsburgh's Paul Maholm opposes Cincinnati's Eric Milton. Maholm was 3-1 in limited work in 2005 (his first year in the big leagues) with a 2.18 ERA in only 41 1/3 innings of work. Milton had a dreadful 2005 campaign (8-15, with a balloonish 6.47 ERA), but he hopes that 2006 will bring a return to his numbers of the past (like his 14-6 record in 2004 with the Phillies or 15-7 record in 2001 with the Twins). GABP is problematic to a home run pitcher like Milton has been, so keep your fingers crossed (as a Reds fan) that Milton can keep the ball down on Friday night.

The weekend will conclude the series with two afternoon games on Saturday (Oliver Perez versus Aaron Harang, two opening day starters return) and Sunday (Victor Santos versus Dave Williams, making his first Reds' start). The Reds are now at 2-1 on the season, while the Pirates fall to 0-4 for only the sixth time in their long history.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Reds Gut Out Series Split; Arroyo and Aurilia Shine

As bad as the Opening Day game may have been, the second game of the year was that much more redemptive for the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds gutted out a much better performance against the visiting Chicago Cubs to split the short two-game series. The final score in this one: 8-6, in favor of the home team.

Bronson Arroyo, the recent acquisition from the Boston Red Sox for former outfielder Wily Mo Pena, brought hope to a team that his addition couldn't have been better. The musician-on-the-side starting pitcher proved his worth with this reasonably impressive first game in front of the home crowd at GABP. Arroyo's line score was 6 2/3 innings pitched, 6 hits, 5 runs (only 3 earned), no walks (most impressive), and 7 strikeouts. Possibly more impressive, Arroyo was 1 for 1 as a batter with a walk -- oh, by the way, that one hit was a home run, the first of his career. Granted, Arroyo hasn't had many hitting opportunities as an American League pitcher in recent years, but this was a special moment he would likely not soon forget. His offense started off the third inning for the Reds, a game-tying shot that invigorated the team to score twice more that inning.

The first run of the game was driven in by Rich Aurilia, an oft-forgotten cog in this Reds' machine, on a single to center. Aurilia not only drove in Ryan Freel in the first inning but also with a two-run homer in the bottom of the third, following Arroyo's heroics earlier that same inning. The Reds 4-2 through three innings with the combined offense of Aurilia, Arroyo, and Freel.

In the fifth, Ken Griffey, Jr., made news of his own. Although Arroyo would certainly grab the spotlight this day, Junior hit career homer number 537, a solo shot to deep left center, that also accounted for career RBI number 1,538. Those two stats are significant because the home run allowed Griffey to pass Mickey Mantle on the all-time list and the RBI allowed him to pass Joe DiMaggio on that list as well. Two legends of the game passed with one swing of the bat reminded baseball fans everywhere how great a career this future-Hall-of-Famer has had.

The scoring continued after Junior's homer in the fifth with two more runs scoring on a combination of a sacrifice fly from David Ross to plate Adam Dunn and an Edwin Encarnaction run scored on a passed ball to catcher Michael Barrett. The Reds led 7-2 at that point and would not look back.

The Cubs did challenge late in this one, thanks in part to an error in the sixth inning on a foul ball from Derek Lee that turned into a two-run homer only a couple of pitches later and a two-run shot by John Mabry an inning later. The margin was cut to 7-6 through seven innings, but it got no closer. Felipe Lopez drove in run-scoring machine Freel with a groundout in the bottom of the eighth to provided an unneeded but beneficial insurance run, making the score the final of 8-6. David Weathers closed out the game 1-2-3 in the ninth for his first save, and Arroyo (1-0)claimed his first win as a Red.

Additional news tidbit from the game: Aramis Ramirez hit his career 10th homer at the GABP, tying for most by a visiting player at the stadium with Geoff Jenkins.

The Reds are now back to .500 on the season, 1-1, with the Pittsburgh Pirates coming to town for a four-game series on Thursday night. Brandon Claussen, the Reds' second-best pitcher in 2005, takes the mound against his opposite number, Ian Snell (a second-year player), from the Pirates. On paper, I like the Reds chances in this one, but it will be interesting to see Sean Casey face his old team in his first visit to GABP as a visiting player. Casey may help motivate his new teammates to victory, but I think I like the offense of this new collection in town (including his replacement Scott Hatteberg) as well.

Go Reds!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Cubs Club Reds in Season Opener; Offense Prevails with No Pitching to be Found

The final score of the 2006 season opener says more than enough about the kind of day that the Reds had: Chicago 16, Cincinnati 7. When you have to go all the way back to the 1877 season opener to find an opening day loss this lopsided, you know you had a "special" day. One can only hope that this game is not indicative of the rest of the season to come, or this will be a very long season indeed.

The highlight of this game probably took place before the game even began. President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the game, the first sitting president to ever do so before a Reds' season opener. When the game actually began, one might have wondered if the President could have done any worse than the real pitchers in the game.

The game started off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. Aaron Harang, the new designated ace of this staff, took the mound with a good spring behind him. All of that good work from spring training meant next to nothing when the Cubs rocked him for five (5) runs in the top of the first inning, although only two of those runs were earned. The first four batters of the inning all reached (Juan Pierre with a triple, Todd Walker with a double to score Pierre, Derek Lee with a walk, and Aramis Ramirez with a single). With the bases loaded, Jacque Jones lifted a fly ball to left that Adam Dunn misplayed for an error (which could have been blamed on the swirling winds on the day), but Walker scored and the other two runners advanced. Trouble seemed to be averted when Michael Barrett lined into a double play (also with the bases loaded) to take out Ramirez at second and leave Lee and Jones on the corners. Nobody would have guessed that the Matt Murton, the number seven hitter, would be the star of this game, but Murton cranked Harang's offering to deep right center for a three-run homer and a five-run lead for the visiting team.

The Reds would respond on offense in the bottom of the first, as the first three batters (Tony Womack, Felipe Lopez, and Ken Griffey Jr) all reached (walk, single, walk, respectively). Adam Dunn then flied out to deep center to score Womack on a sacrifice fly while both Lopez and Griffey were able to advance. With only one out, Edwin Encarnacion struck out, but Scott Hatteberg reached on a walk with two outs. Austin Kearns came up with a chance to add more runs, but he flied out to deep left on a great defensive play by the aforementioned Murton (who turned in a big first inning) while crashing into the scoreboard.

While Harang would settle down after the first inning (allowing only two hits and no runs through the next four innings), the Reds offense began to whittle away at the 5-1 deficit. In the bottom of the third, Dunn singled to with one out followed by a walk by Encarnacion. With two on and one out, Hatteberg, the new first baseman and off-season free agent signing, made good with a big three-run homer to deep right to cut the margin to 5-4. Two innings later, in the bottom of the fifth, Adam Dunn provided more offense by leading off the inning with a homer, tying the game at 5-5. After a double by Austin Kearns with two outs, Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs starter, was taken out of the game for reliever Will Ohman, who delivered the third out with a flyout by Javier Valentin.

Now that the score was back to square, one would have thought Harang would be feeling pretty good about things, but manager Jerry Narron may have left him out there one inning longer than he should have. The sixth inning was the beginning of the unravelling of the game, as the first four batters of the inning all reached base (Barrett walked, Murton hit one deep in the whole to short that became a single, Ronny Cedeno reached on a bunt single to load the bases, and then Angel Pagan delivered a run-scoring single). The Cubs had retaken the lead at 6-5. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Harang was taken out of the game in favor of lefty Chris Hammond, the one-time Reds starter now back as a middle reliever.

Hammond had an outing he would probably rather forget. Pierre got an infield single on a hit back to the mound that Hammond could not convert for an out and allowed a run to score. Then Todd Walker singled in two more runs (all three charged to Aaron Harang, who was charged with six earned runs on the day), pushing the score to 9-5, chasing Hammond in favor of late roster addition Mike Burns. Burns promptly came in to allow a double to Derek Lee, scoring Pierre from third and keeping runners at second and third. With first base open, Burns intentionally walked Ramirez to get to the pitcher's spot, but the Cubs used pinch-hitter Neifi Perez, who delivered a single to score another run (now 11-5) and keep the bases loaded. The first outs of the inning were finally notched when Barrett grounded into a double play, but one more run scored on the play to bring the score to a lopsided 12-5. Murton walked before Cedeno finally ended the inning on a strikeout swinging. The two runs that scored after Burns came in were charged to Hammond, who has the dubious honor of an "infinite" ERA with two runs allowed in no innings of work.

The Reds were once again in a definite (and even bigger) hole, but this time they would not recover. They would score only twice more before the game was over, once in the bottom of the sixth on a sac fly by Griffey and the other on a sac fly by Rich Aurilia in the bottom of the seventh. The margin was 12-7 after seven innings and stayed that way until the ninth, with the pitching finally "stable" after Matt Belisle pitched a one-hit seventh and Todd Coffey pitched a one-hit eighth.

In the top of the ninth, the Cubs put some insurance on top of their already sizeable lead. Rick White took over the pitching duties for the Reds but struggled to get outs. He allowed a single to Pagan and then a bunt single to Pierre. Jerry Hairston Jr reached on an infield throwing error by third baseman Encarnacion to load the bases. Lee hit a sac fly to score Pagan (13-7) and advance both Pierre and Hairston. Ramirez was then intentionally walked. Perez grounded into a fielder's choice, forcing Ramirez at second but scoring Pierre (14-7) and advancing Hairston to third. Barrett then came up with a two-run double to close the scoring at 16-7.

The Reds then went quietly in the ninth, with only a single by Aurilia with two outs, and the game was over with a final score of 16-7. Will Ohman, the Cubs relief of Zambrano with only one-third inning worked, notched the win (1-0) while Reds' starter Harang suffered the loss (0-1) with a poor first outing (5 IP, 9 H, 9R, 6ER, 3 BB, and 3 K). Given the large margin of victory, nobody was in line to earn a save, but the offense was clearly the story of the game.

Both teams have an off-day on Tuesday as the Reds hope to regroup with a Wednesday afternoon special at home to split this short two-game series with the Cubs. Newest addition Bronson Arroyo will take the mound for the Reds while Glendon Rusch will oppose him for the Cubs. The start time for Wednesday's game is an earlier 12:35 Pm (the "business man's special"), as the Pirates then come to town on Thursday night for a four-game series.

Here's hoping that Game 2 might show us some pitching capability (and a better outcome) for our home team. It certainly cannot get much worse than Game 1, but one game does not a season make. 161 games remain; we just got our first loss out of the way early.