Thursday, August 12, 1999

Solid starters energize hopeful Reds




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PITTSBURGH — The big push has not begun. Fifty games from the finish, the Cincinnati Reds are still in midseason mode. Baseball's stretch drive doesn't start to get serious until you find men foaming at the mouth.

        “We can definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Barry Larkin said Wednesday afternoon. “Guys are starting to feel something. But they're not salivating yet. When there's a real focus, we'll know.”

        For now, the pennant race is still secondary to the daily grind. Scoreboard-watching is on the rise, but the Reds go about their business with no great sense of urgency. Neither Larkin nor Sean Casey was in the starting lineup for Wednesday's 5-4 loss to the Pirates, and neither acted aggrieved. There are just too many games left to start going full-bore.

        And yet, there has been a change. Where once there was hope, now there is confidence. The Reds are contenders, and they no longer are hanging on by the fingernails of an arm-weary starting rotation. Denny Neagle has returned from the disabled list, Juan Guzman has arrived from the blight of Baltimore, and the whole enterprise has been energized.

Feeling like the Braves
        Less than two weeks ago, the Reds' season appeared close to collapse. Starting pitchers were breaking down as if their warranties had just expired. Now, it appears a finishing kick has been found. Standing at shortstop this week at Three Rivers Stadium, Larkin was struck by a feeling usually associated with Atlanta.

        “The last two days, we've kind of been like the Braves have been the last eight or nine years,” he said before Wednesday's game. “We've had tremendous pitching that just sets the tone. It's been like, "OK, we're going to shut 'em down. You guys score a couple runs and we'll be all right.'”

        It won't always work that way. Wednesday night, Ron Villone limited the Pirates to two earned runs in six innings, Dmitri Young doubled home the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth, but Scott Williamson failed to hold the fort. Still, if you're looking long term, Reds starters are getting progressively more stingy.

        This is the difference between a team that's in the hunt and one capable of winning the whole thing. With strong starting pitching, all things are possible. Without it, your best shot is to be the Cleveland Indians.

        Neagle, Guzman and Pete Harnisch give the Reds credibility in a short series. Brett Tomko, Villone and (perhaps) Steve Parris provide enviable depth. If postseason play were conducted as a series of doubleheaders, the Reds might be considered the favorites.

        “You see five guys now who can win any day of the week,” Casey said. “You feel like if you get four or five runs on the board, we've got the game.”

        Four runs would have been enough for the Reds to win eight of their 10 games so far this month. With 50 games to go, Cincinnati pitchers have allowed fewer hits and fewer earned runs and pitched more shutouts than any other team in baseball.

        What were the odds of that happening at the start of the season?

        “I'd be living in a pup tent,” said Marty Brennaman, the Reds' radio announcer. “Because I would have bet everything I own.”

Bullpen and depth
        The bulk of the credit for the Reds' pitching progress belongs to the bullpen, but the recent stability of the starting rotation gives Jack McKeon the depth to dream of a Reds October.

        “You're sitting on the bench and you're down 3-1, and it's almost as if you know you're going to win,” the Reds manager said. “We're going to find a way to get those runs. All we need is an opening.”

        This is not to say the Reds should start selling World Series tickets, merely that they earned the right to make contingency plans.

        “You only go as far as your pitching takes you,” Larkin said. “We were very confident before (Neagle and Guzman bolstered the rotation), but our chances are that much better now.”

        If some players start foaming at the mouth, you'll know why.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.



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