Saturday, April 08, 2006

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).

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