It’s gotten to the point where every Reds/Cardinal series feels like a trip upriver with Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now—you don’t know what you’re going to see, but you have the distinctly uneasy feeling it could get pretty harrowing before all is said and done.
Google map-it how you will. Despite the fact that the Reds have won two of the last three division championships, Route 162 seems to snake through the Baseball season like some main circuit cable plugged straight into St. Louis, Missouri.
Here we are again one more time. To fully understand where we are, a look backward is in order. The first series in the rawness that is April was a feeling-out affair, both teams routing each other, bookending a Bronson Arroyo collapse in the 6th inning of the middle game. The end of the month brought three closely contested and low scoring affairs at Busch, with only Mat Latos able to come out a winner in the series opener. The Reds had quickly dropped the first two series of the young season to their most hated rivals.
June brings with it the first real feeling that serious summer baseball is here, and on a beautiful, warm Friday night full of flip flops and Summer Shandy, the local media got all caught up with the moment and themselves, telling us we were in must-win mode:
“This team has played 61 games and never has there been a time they needed a win more than tonight.”-Marty B, 700 WLW #Reds
— Lance McAlister (@LanceMcAlister) June 8, 2013
Mike Leake went out and pitched uninspired baseball and Logan Ondrusek came in and punted the game away. The next night Mat Latos pitched like Mat Latos does and the back end of the bullpen held serve, leaving Sunday’s contest the series decider. With all that on the line, Arroyo exited with a two run lead in the top of the 7th, only to see the bullpen melt down and lose the game in extra innings.
Early August saw another “must-win” series and before the 4th inning of the first game was over, Arroyo was gone and the Reds trailed 9-0. The next night, the Cardinals got their first look at Cingrani—and although it took 30 pitches to get out of the first, the Kid stifled the Cards, Devin Mesoraco hit two HRs and the bullpen was good enough to send the series again to another rubber match on Sunday. Then, Mike Leake gave up 4 runs in the first inning, was relieved by an ineffective Ondrusek in the 6th and the Reds were routed once more, 15-2. Another Sunday gone and now for the fifth time this season, Cincinnati had lost to St. Louis by seven or more runs.
Late August brought the Reds to Busch Stadium and despite being staked to an early 4-run lead, Leake was once again not up to the task. J.J. Hoover came in, and for the second time this year, was victimized by the Cardinals, this time by an ignominious grand slam at the hands of Allen Craig. By now, Redleg Nation was at DEFCON 1 with Mat Latos the firewall between a fan base ready to perform self-immolation. Latos gave up 2 runs early, St. Louis starter Joe Kelly was shaky, but it was the base running circus in the 4th inning—with Bruce, Cozart and third base coach Mark Berry conducting an impromptu team meeting at third base—that sealed the fate of the Reds in game two of the series.
The Beast was feeding now. Conventional wisdom declared the Reds were intimidated by the Redbirds. Unforced base running gaffes, bobbled balls in the field and a not ready for prime time bullpen were indisputable proof that this team saw itself as little brother in the NL Central. The narrative was being written: like actors suffering from flop sweat, the Reds were spooked by the bright lights. Paul Daugherty called for a shrink. The players, backed into a corner, took their frustration out on an Enquirer beat reporter, then took the field and punched Adam Wainwright in the mouth, while Homer Bailey put a pillow over the face of the St. Louis offense.
Then a funny thing happened. They played with much the same ineptitude against the Colorado Rockies.
I had bought into the Little Brother trope. Denver was an epiphany. The Reds didn’t need the Cardinals to play Buttermaker Baseball. Sure, they could kick it around when St. Louis took the field. But, they could do that Mile High and valley low. The Reds are a good fielding team that can lose focus at any moment. They can also run the bases like Forrest Gump when the situation calls for it. Cincinnati’s problem isn’t intimidation, it’s insouciance.
Upon closer examination, what St. Louis was doing to the Reds was beating up on the back of the rotation and a bullpen missing Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton. Yes, Tony Cingrani has been a brilliant sub for Johnny Cueto, but he’s only pitched once against St. Louis. Dusty Baker hasn’t seen the urgency to set up his rotation for these epic heart-of-darkness battles between good and evil. Accordingly, the Cardinals missed Bailey in June and again in early August.
To beat the Cardinals, the Reds need to knock the bats out of the hands of the Cardinal hitters. Velocity does that. Only Latos has pitched each of the last three series against St. Louis. Even Mr. 106 could be a factor, assuming he can be found.
Come October, the Reds should have either Marshall or Cueto back in the bullpen. Maybe both if the Baseball Gods let the Reds up off the medical mat.
Meanwhile, the Reds have now scored runs on ace Adam Wainwright in eight straight innings. Bailey goes today. Cingrani could anchor the series on Thursday, if a certain manager sees the urgency.
On June 8th, Reds/Cardinals was an entertaining diversion. This week, we find out if the Redlegs are worthy warriors or merely errand boys sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.