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.

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