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.

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