Cincinnati's springtime pennant optimism has turned sour in summer
Shortly after the Cardinals thumped the Reds 12-3 last Thursday, the mood in the Cincinnati clubhouse was gloomy. The Reds, 8� games back in the National League Central when first-place St. Louis came to town four days earlier, had been looking at the series as a chance to close ground on the front-runners. Instead, the Cardinals escaped with a split, leaving the Reds in dire straits as they embarked on a 13-game stretch during which they would face the Diamondbacks, Cardinals, Indians and Rockies. "It was a missed opportunity," said Cincinnati manager Jack McKeon. "On the other hand we showed the Cardinals we can play with them. We held our own."
Such was the state of the Reds, who held a half-game lead over St. Louis on June 5 but at week's end had lost 16 of their next 24. They were grasping for moral victories in a rapidly deteriorating season. Compare that attitude to the one on display in spring training when the Reds, losers to the Mets last October in a one-game playoff for the National League wild card, were talking like champions. After the off-season acquisitions of Ken Griffey Jr. and Dante Bichette, shortstop Barry Larkin guaranteed a division title and general manager Jim Bowden strutted around like a proud papa. "You can take a positive out of this if you want," Larkin said after Thursday's loss, "but the reality is, we gained no ground."
Things didn't improve over the weekend, when the Reds won two of their first three games in Arizona but still failed to improve in the standings. The reasons for Cincinnati's funk are myriad. The starting rotation, as expected, has been weak; lefthander Denny Neagle (7-2, 3.78 ERA through Sunday) was the only seasonlong starter with an ERA under 5.00. The shaky bullpen (its 4.37 ERA was over a run higher than last year's) has failed to make up for the starters' shortcomings.
The biggest reason for the Reds' struggles, however, was that the cast of young players who had surprisingly strong seasons a year ago has not picked up where it left off. First baseman Sean Casey, 26, who hit a team-high .332 and knocked in 99 runs in 1999, began this season on the disabled list after breaking his right thumb in spring training. Eager to return to the lineup, he came back in late April without taking a minor league rehab assignment and has failed to regain his stroke; through Sunday he was hitting .247 with only four homers and 20 RBIs. Second baseman Pokey Reese, 27, has been in a six-week slump that dropped his average from .328 on May 14 to .269; his on-base percentage had sunk to .337, and he was dropped last week from the leadoff spot to eighth in the order. Last year's Rookie of the Year, righthanded reliever Scott Williamson, 24, had a respectable 3.21 ERA and six saves in eight chances but has been alarmingly wild; he was tied for the major league lead with 13 wild pitches and had walked an average of 7.1 batters per nine innings. In his last 13 outings Williamson had allowed 13 runs in 16 innings.
"Even when Junior was struggling, we managed to be in first place," says catcher Eddie Taubensee, referring to Griffey's slow start that had him hitting .209 two months into the season. Griffey reversed field with a torrid June (.304, 12 home runs) and was fourth in the league with 26 dingers at week's end. "Now it's the rest of us who feel we should be doing better," adds Taubensee, who last year had career highs of .311, 21 homers and 87 RBIs but had knocked in only 18 this season.
The Reds' woes extend into the clubhouse as well. McKeon, last year's National League Manager of the Year, was ripped publicly by Williamson after the righthander was brought in on June 17 to face the Padres' lefthand-hitting Tony Gwynn. Williamson gave up a hit to Gwynn and allowed two inherited runners to score. The next day third base coach Ron Oester chastised Williamson in front of the team for having blamed McKeon. After mat series in San Diego, which concluded a 1-8 road trip, the players held two meetings in three days to make sure nobody had given up on the season. "This season has been a very, very negative experience," says Larkin. He also says the team misses the leadership provided last year by outfielder Greg Vaughn, who signed as a free agent with the Devil Rays. "This club lacks someone who can challenge guys in the clubhouse, get in their faces."
One challenge for the Reds is to decide if they'll be buyers or sellers as the July 31 trading deadline approaches. Bowden says that for now he's working overtime to acquire a starting pitcher and that few players on the roster should be considered untouchable if a deal will improve the team. "Watching those other teams in the playoffs last year was tough," says outfielder Dmitri Young. "We were so close."
That might be as close as the Reds get for a while.
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