CINCINNATI–September beckons and the Reds have a six-game lead despite losing a weekend series to the St. Louis Cardinals. But Cincinnati is also still 25 games over .500 and built for the long haul, not for late-season faltering, and that’s even without Joey Votto.
Not so long ago, Votto, hitting .342, was talked about as the National League MVP for 2012. Then he twisted a knee and has been out of the lineup since July 15. He is due to begin a rehab assignment in the minors shortly and then return to Cincinnati when ready. But the remarkable thing about the heat of the summer is that the Reds haven’t missed him. They’ve been playing better since Votto got hurt sending shivers throughout the Great American Ball Park stands, than they were when he was in the lineup every day.
Now with Votto healing and ready to return, it’s as if the Reds picked up a dangerous bat for free for the stretch run. Manager Dusty Baker’s biggest problem competing in a league with no designated hitter is how to mesh Votto, his replacement Todd Frazier, vying for rookie of the year, and third baseman Scott Rolen, into an every-day plan. Frazier filled in for Rolen earlier when he was hurt and the more he has played the better he has played.
The Reds have done an amazing job of hitting at the right time. Most of the position players have hit fairly well, but they have taken turns getting hot and winning games for the club rather than sustaining long hot streaks with big numbers. Frazier’s emergence has been huge, and outfielder Ryan Ludwick‘s surge from mid-summer on when Votto went down, has been a tremendous asset.
For a while the Reds were running pretty even with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cardinals, but they woke up before last weekend with a seven-game lead over St. Louis and whenever the Reds gaze at the standings in a newspaper or on a TV screen, they get all warm and fuzzy.
“If we had looked ahead and knew we would be that far ahead in August, we would have taken it,” said outfielder Chris Heisey. “But it’s not about begin satisfied with the lead. We want to expand it.”
The Reds have been winning a lot of close games and one of the critical reasons has been a slam-the-door bullpen anchored by All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman who has 31 saves and 112 strikeouts in 58 innings to complement his 1.31 earned run average. The guy hardly ever gives up a run. The Reds also have six other relievers with ERAs at 3.50 or less.
“If we get the lead to the bullpen, I feel confident they can shut out teams the rest of the game,” Heisey said.
Baker has become used to his team being involved in mostly close games by now, even though they are not soothing to his nerves.
“We never blow anybody out and they never blow us out,” he said.
The Reds are in the midst of a 17-games-in-16 days-schedule so Baker is very conscious of how he employs his bullpen personnel. He keeps a lineup chart on his desk and before each game he looks it over and writes the word “No” next to certain relievers’ names. That’s to remind himself that they are not available to throw again that night after pitching so many days in a row.
“We knew this was going to be a tough stretch,” Baker said. “No one’s going to feel sorry for you.”
No one’s going to feel Baker’s angst as he tries to ease Votto back into the lineup from injury, still find playing time for Frazier (18 home runs, .293 average), who is either leading league rookies or near the top in several major categories, and take full advantage of the aging, but clutch Rolen, a seven-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glove winner.
“I’m a starter for right now and I’m gonna play my heart out,” Frazier said when word began filtering out that Votto is on his way back soon.
Rookie or not, Frazier has the game plan for how the Reds can clinch their division.
“The key is winning every series,” Frazier said. “You’ve got to think you’re the best team. There’s nothing wrong with that.”