For a few brief moments on Monday night, it appeared the Cincinnati Reds would slide past the St. Louis Cardinals into first place in the NL Central. The Reds had defeated the Braves 4-1 behind a brilliant effort from Mike Leake and four solo home runs. The Padres were leading the Cardinals late in their game, until Tyler Greene's two-run homer in the eighth lifted the Cards to a 4-3 victory.
Still ... half a game. Half a game. Cardinals fans have to be wondering how this happened.
Considering the hot starts many of the Cardinals jumped out to -- Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran and three-fifths of the rotation in Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook -- the Cardinals can only look back and wonder why they're not five or six games in front of the Reds. After all, St. Louis' run differential is +58; Cincinnati's is only +3.
I'd call it an opportunity squandered, because now the Reds are breathing down their necks and they're probably here to stay. Hey, there has to be at least two good teams in the NL Central, right?
With all the talk about who should be closing in Cincinnati, the biggest issue with the pitching staff has been Leake. He entered winless in seven starts -- at 0-5, he joined Chris Volstad and Francisco Liriano as the only pitchers without a win and at least five decisions -- but wasn't just reeling from a lack of run support. He'd allowed at least three runs each start, had a 6.21 ERA, a .309 batting average allowed and just 21 strikeouts in 37.2 innings.
Leake walked Martin Prado with one out in the first but struck out Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla. In the second, Juan Francisco homered, but Leake then retired 14 in a row before Uggla doubled in the seventh. He finished with eight innings, just those two hits and six K's. For Leake, his biggest issue before Monday night had been an ineffective changeup, usually a good pitch for him. In 2010-2011, opponents hit .252 off his changeup but they were hitting .529 in at-bats ending with a changeup in 2012.
He appeared to compensate by throwing more cutters against the Braves -- 28 out of 98, the second-most he's thrown in a start this season. Of course, it helped that he was ahead of hitters much of the night, throwing just two pitches on three-ball counts; in his previous three starts, he'd thrown 31 pitches with three balls. Pitching is easier when you don't have to groove a pitch to avoid a walk.
Leake also sparked the Cincinnati offense in the fourth inning, when he homered off his friend Mike Minor (Minor was the seventh pick in the 2009 draft, Leake the eighth, and the two were teammates on Team USA). Zack Cozart and Drew Stubbs followed with home runs to give the Reds back-to-back-to-back blasts. While it was Leake's first career blast, he's a legitimate threat at the plate with a .271 career average.
The four solo shots do highlight a big problem with the Reds' offense, however. Outside of Joey Votto this lineup is completely hacktastic -- working the count is not exactly a disease that has spread from Votto to everyone else. Even with Votto's MLB-leading 40 walks, the Reds rank just 11th in the NL in free passes, and despite playing in a hitter-friendly home park, their .697 team OPS is tied for 10th in the league. After Votto, Jay Bruce is second on the team with 12 walks -- quadruple that total and you have a guy on pace for 48. Home run boys Cozart and Stubbs can flip the occasional long ball, but they've combined for just 22 walks and 86 strikeouts. Brandon Phillips has just eight walks. Votto gets walked a lot because he often comes up with nobody on base. (Memo to Dusty Baker: Try moving Bruce in front of Votto. Just consider it, please.)
Somewhere, Joe Morgan cringes.
When the Reds won the NL Central in 2010, they led the NL in runs scored. That team led the NL with 188 home runs and a .272 average while ranking ninth in walks. This offense doesn't show signs of matching the firepower of that lineup, not with Votto, Bruce and catcher Ryan Hanigan the only three sporting an OBP over .300.
That means the Reds are going to be in a lot of low-scoring games, which means the bullpen will prove key, especially since Leake's outing was only the 12th in 41 games where the Reds' starter has gone at least seven innings.
Which, inevitably, gets us back to Baker and how he handles the relief crew. It's certainly interesting that in the two days since Aroldis Chapman was "named" the team's closer that exiled closer Sean Marshall picked up the two most important outs.
On Sunday, with the Reds leading the Yankees 3-2 and a runner on with no outs in the eighth, Marshall retired Robinson Cano. Chapman came on for the easy save and faced the bottom of the Yankees lineup after the Reds had extended their lead to 5-2.
On Monday, with Chapman unavailable after pitching four times in five days, Marshall again delivered after Jose Arredondo walked Uggla and Brian McCann with two outs in the ninth. Brought on to face Jason Heyward, Marshall fell behind with a slider, threw two of his big-breaking curveballs for a called strike and a swinging strike, saw Heyward foul off another curve, threw a fastball down low, and then got Heyward to fly to right on another curve.
For all the consternation over who gets the capital C designation, it shouldn't really matter. Marshall is a very good reliever. Chapman has been a great one. Arredondo and Logan Ondrusek are solid right-handers and rookie J.J. Hoover has looked impressive. What Baker should avoid doing is getting trapped into saving Chapman for the ninth inning only -- which means fewer innings and fewer moments with the game on the line. Chapman is the guy you want in there when you need a big strikeout with runners on base in the eighth inning. Marshall, Arrendodo and Ondrusek can close out the three-run leads. Use Chapman and his bullpen mates wisely, and the Reds can stay in this race even with a mediocre offense.
As for the Cardinals, that hot start is a thing of the past. The injuries are mounting and that run differential has gone to waste. We're a quarter of the way into the season and we have a race.
Considering these two teams have some strong dislike for each other going back a couple years, it should be a fun summer in Central Land.
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