Thursday, May 18, 2006

Miss a Week, Miss a Lot ... Reds Slumping in May; Lose Five Straight

When I last wrote about the Reds on Friday, May 5th, they were coming off a lopsided 7-1 loss in Arizona at the hands of the surging Diamondbacks. Saturday's game was slightly better but still was notched as a loss (3-1) to Arizona once again. Staving off a sweep, the Reds rebounded for a 9-8 win on Sunday (5/7) to salvage a bad road trip. Returning home looked to be the medicine this team needed, and the Washington Nationals could be a great candidate to motivate this team into action.

After Monday's off day, the Reds lost again behind the arm of Brandon Claussen in an ugly 7-1 loss on Tuesday. Back-to-back days (Wednesday and Thursday, 5/10 and 5/11) brought back-to-back wins (9-6 and 5-4) for the first time since the brief St. Louis series a week earlier. When the weekend rolled around, the phenomenal Phillies were riding a big winning streak (losing only one of their last ten games) ... and that trend did not stop against the Reds. Friday's 8-4 loss featured a solid (if unspectacular) start by Elizardo Ramirez and a bullpen blow-up, Saturday's 2-0 loss was a tough pill to swallow (Jon Lieber pitched 6 2/3 perfect innings against a great start by fifth starter Dave Williams), and Sunday's extra-inning 2-1 loss (with a wasted quality start by Brandon Claussen) could have gone either way.

Thank goodness for off days because this team needed one on Monday, 5/15. The last 11 games (all during the month of May) had seen only four wins versus an ugly seven losses; however, the Reds managed to stay only one game behind the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals. Of course, given that this is being written early Thursday morning (a few days later), a couple more games have taken place. If the records meant anything, the first half of this road trip (against NL Central patsies, Pittsburgh Pirates) should have been a walk in the park. Or not.

The last two games -- a 9-3 whuppin' and an equally ugly 7-2 loss on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively -- have nothing short of "gag me" excruciating pain. The offense is gone, the pitching attrocious ... what positive things can I possibly find out of these losses? Starts by Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, the team's two best starters, were awful. Deservedly, both starters also notched the losses.

Mercifully, the Reds-Pirates series ends today (Thursday, 5/18) during a business day special in Pittsburgh. The Reds still hold a winning record (23-17) versus the awful record of the Pirates (13-27), but this Cincinnati club will be lucky not to be swept once again if the offense doesn't come around soon. Dave Williams (2-3, 6.32 - getting his act together lately) faces Victor Santos (1-4, 5.32 - coming off a bad outing against the Marlins last Friday) in this critical game for the Reds. Considering the next series is in Detroit against baseball's surprising second-best team (the Tigers), the Reds need to figure things out quickly before the Cardinals lap them in the NL Central.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The "Ramblings" Journal is On Hiatus [until after 5/13]

I will make this post short and direct. I have a personal vacation planned between today (which is now Saturday, May 6th) until a week from today (Saturday, May 13th), when I will be returning home. I probably will not write anything new about the Richmond race on Saturday night or even the upcoming Darlington race, which will be happening the night I will be flying home with my new bride.

In any case, I hope you enjoy reading my previous entries, and I look forward to continuing to serve my readers with fresh content when I get back from this break.


JD Rentz

P.S. The Reds lost badly to the Arizona Diamondbacks in their series opener on Friday night, but I hope they will manage to rebound to take two of three over the next couple of days.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Reds Machine Hits "Rocky" Road on Wednesday, Lose 3-0 in Colorado

The new incarnation of the "Big Red Machine" has seen the Cincinnati Reds do almost everything right and very little wrong. That is not to say that this Reds team is "perfect", but things most certainly have been clicking along the way. The train had a minor derailment on Wednesday evening, though, as the Colorado Rockies, behind the solid performance of starter Jeff Francis, knocked off the Reds in a 3-0 shutout victory over the most explosive offense in the majors.

How could a team like the Reds go scoreless in a scoring haven like Coors Field? Well, with Francis scattering only four hits and one walk over seven innings of work that included five strikesouts, it is easy to see that the pitcher made the difference. Francis' opponent was Reds' starter Brandon Claussen, who delivered a respectable, if not spectacular, performance. Claussen allowed only three runs in six and two-thirds innings on seven hits with two walks and five strikeouts. All of the damage in this game happened in only one inning -- the bottom of the fifth.

The inning started off with a single by Choo Freeman, who then stole second followed by a reach of third on a throwing error by first baseman Rich Aurilia. Danny Ardoin followed that up by a single to center, scoring Freeman as the first run of the game. Francis grounded out (on a bunt attempt) into a fielder's choice as the lead runner (Ardoin) was nailed for the first out at second. Jamey Carroll singled to center as the next batter, moving Francis to second. Ryan Spilborghs flied out to right for the second out before the nail was driven into the Reds' coffin. Matt Holliday, who easily had the night's best performance, hit a double over the head of centerfielder Ryan Freel to score both runners and stretch the lead to three (and the resulting final score of 3-0). The inning ended innocently with an intentional walk to Garret Atkins and then a strikeout swinging of Eli Marrero.

The Reds offense was as silent as a night in Bethlehem on this evening. Claussen (2-3) had no run support from a team that has scored 158 runs in it's previous 27 games (5.85 runs per game), so a shutout is one of those unexpected events on this team. Giving Francis (1-2) credit, he was in command of the Reds from beginning until his exit after the seventh. The save in this game went to Brian Fuentes (6), who pitched a scoreless ninth, after Jose Mesa held the Reds without a hit in the eighth in relief of Francis.

The road trip is not starting as the homestand had ended. With the loss, the Reds still are in a tie for the most wins in baseball, but their lead in the NL Central slipped back to 1/2 game over the Astros (who beat the Cardinals on the night). More discouraging? The next opponent after the Rockies tomorrow is the Diamondbacks on Friday. Why discouraging? Arizona has won three in a row and is headed towards the top of the division to challenge front-runner Colorado. The Reds are hitting the West's two best teams at the wrong time.

I am certainly encouraged by tomorrow's starter, Aaron Harang, to salvage a split in this short two-game series. His opponent is a quality starter, Josh Fogg, who has best been known in recent years as a Pittsburgh Pirate. Harang has been dominant of late while Fogg has been struggling. Let us all hope that both trends continue ... for the Reds' sake.

Rounding Third and Heading for Home ...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Arroyo & Reds Roll Over Mulder & Cardinals in 6-1 Win

The Cincinnati Reds rolled to yet another victory on this young season with a 6-1 defeat of the former co-leaders in the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals. Monday night's effort was a microcosm of the season we have seen to date, with pitcher "extraordinaire" Bronson Arroyo going the distance for a complete game against his rival Mark Mulder, who failed to get out of the sixth inning. With this win, the Reds move into sole possession of first place again (at 18-8), as the Cardinals (17-9) fall to one game back and the Astros, in losing to the Brewers on Monday night as well, slip to a game and a half behind (at 16-9).

This homestand to date could not be going much better for the home team. When the Reds returned to Cincinnati, they were riding a wave of success on a road trip that saw them win three of four from the Brewers in Milwaukee and sweep the Nationals in three at D.C. (for six of seven overall on the trip). With three of four won so far in these two series at home (two of three from the Astros and this last game from the Cardinals), the Reds have won an impressive eight of their last 10 games (with six straight between Sunday and Saturday during the week of April 23rd). Could things be going much better for this upstart team?

I find it interesting, yet not surprising, that the Reds continue to be ignored by the national media. Only one other team has as many wins (18) as the Reds do -- the defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox -- but Cincinnati is only getting a "blip" mention during most SportsCenter broadcasts that I have seen. How many wins will this team need to be taken seriously? Do they need a multi-game lead in the NL Central before they get the attention that is due at this point? My guess is that showing them more prominently at this point is an admission that the "experts" (notably from all media outlets) predicted this team was going absolutely nowhere fast. When they are already one-quarter of the way to their predicted win total (between 65 and 70 wins), it is not an unreasonable expectation that 80+ wins is within reach now.

Whether the Reds can manage a playoff spot by season's end is still a longshot. The Reds may have the number of both the Astros and Cardinals for now, but will that winning continue as the season progresses. The BIG positive in the season so far is that this team never sees themselves down and out, without the prospect to win a game despite trailing, and they will fight to get back the lead and claim victories whenever they can. That attitude is contagious, and I don't see it being lost as long as this team keeps winning games like they have. The offense has been fun to watch, mixing small ball with long ball and doing the "right" things at the right time repeatedly. Speed has been a blessing, with the potent combo of Ryan Freel at the top and Brandon Phillips towards the bottom of the order. The power in the middle (Dunn, Griffey (when healthy), and Kearns) is a great complementary component, and this lineup is as strong as any I have seen this team have in years.

Where this team has been separating itself from its opponents so far is (surprisingly) the starting pitching. The Reds are beating the league's best pitchers (Chris Carpenter, Ben Sheets, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, and Mark Mulder, all notables) from the contending teams in head-to-head competition with the likes of Arroyo, Aaron Harang, and Brandon Claussen. With Eric Milton soon to be returning from his surgery (when he started off 2-0 before a bad defeat prior to going on the DL) and Paul Wilson (the team's ace during the 2004 season) coming back from Tommy John surgery, this pitching staff might just be able to get even better. Elizardo Ramirez has been a very able substitute during Milton's absence this past week (providing two quality starts) while Dave Williams, the Reds' fifth starter, is the only "weak" component of the staff.

Williams will probably lose his starting spot at the current rate unless he delivers an impressive outing in today's afternoon game against the Cardinals to close out the homestand. His 1-2 record and 9.53 ERA is the worst in the rotation but at least his last start against the Nationals was a *little* bit better (not much, mind you, in dropping the ERA from 10.50 to 9.53). His opposition is Sidney Ponson, looking to notch a second win against the Reds in as many starts and split the two games in this quick series.

Fans will be watching intently today to see if the Reds can put some daylight between themselves and the opposition. The next two series after this one (two games at Colorado followed by two games at Arizona) *should* provide games this team can win, while the Cardinals and Astros will be beating up each other for a pair of games in Houston before St. Louis heads to Florida for three and Houston then gets three at Colorado. Colorado is playing better (15-11 overall, but 5-7 at home), Arizona is playing respectably (at .500, 5-6 at home), and Florida has been nearly the worst in the league (2-8 at home, 6-17 overall).

Stay tuned Reds fans ... this has been a great ride so far.

P.S. I finally saw some positive "press" on this morning's SportsCenter. John Kruk, of the ESPN Baseball Tonight crew, said the Reds will be contenders into October in the NL Central. That is the highest praise of any kind I have seen so far. Kudos, Mr. Kruk ... I knew I liked you!