Vaught's Views: Reds a major surprise

July 13, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Before the season started, even the most ardent Cincinnati Reds fan would have been giddy thinking the team would still be in the National League Central Division race at the All-Star break.

Visions of former greats like Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and others would have been temporarily wiped out by Sean Casey, Austin Kearns, Barry Larkin, Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. if anyone had been able to guarantee the Reds would still be in playoff contention in mid-July.

But guess what? The cost-conscious, injury-prone Reds still are in the playoff race as baseball prepares to trot out ageless Roger Clemens, who turns 42 in three weeks, as a starting pitcher for the National League in tonight's All-Star Game.

Sure, Cincinnati is 7 1/2 games behind division leader St. Louis. However, that's the pessimistic view. The optimist sees a team that is a surprising 47-41, only one-half game behind second-place Chicago and still in the wild card race for a playoff berth.


The Reds have done this even though outfielder Austin Kearns, touted as one of the game's rising stars, has basically been ineffective because of various injuries and is now on the 60-day disabled list.

Cincinnati has stayed close even though first baseman Sean Casey has been out about two weeks and had to give up the spot he earned on the All-Star team due to his .352 batting average (second in the National League) and 15 home runs.

Utility player Ryan Freel, who plays with a reckless abandon that Rose would have loved, is also on the disabled list for another week.

Griffey had 20 home runs and had driven in 60 runs when he went down with a hamstring tear Saturday that will disable him for at least two weeks.

Four-game series with St. Louis starts Thursday

Yet the Reds are still a respectable six games over .500 going into a four-game series with visiting St. Louis Thursday that could determine whether they have a legitimate chance to win the division or not.

Barry Larkin has apparently sipped from the Fountain of Youth. He's even postponed a decision on retiring because he's hitting .295 with 33 runs batted-in. Not bad for a 40-year-old shortstop and good enough to earn him a spot on tonight's All-Star roster.

Dunn still strikes out way too much, but he has 25 home runs. Wily Mo Pena, a reserve outfielder when the season opened, has made Kearns' absence less painful with his .270 batting average, 10 home runs and 28 RBIs in just 159 at-bats.

The pitching was supposed to be woeful. While the Reds' staff has not been unhittable, it has been adequate most of the time. Starting pitcher Paul Wilson already has a career-high nine victories. Cory Lidle has been a solid starter.

Closer Danny Graves may not always make it look easy - as shown by seven blown saves - because of his lack of an overpowering fastball. However, he does have 33 saves and is also an All-Star.

Maybe the magic will run out soon. Maybe the injuries, or unwillingness to trade for another reliable starting pitcher, will put the Reds out of the playoff race. Then again, maybe the team almost no one expected to have 47 wins by now will continue to find ways to win and become baseball's surprise team of the year rather than just a first-half wonder.

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