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.

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