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04-30-2006, 08:41 AM
Hustle and flow: Reds cruise smoothly to top
BY PAUL DAUGHERTY | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Brandon Phillips didn't stick around long enough for us to ask him his time in the 40-yard dash, or even if he considered himself a difference maker. But Phillips did score a run and drive in a run in the pivotal fourth inning Saturday, purely on hustle, so you figured he was on Mel Kiper's NFL draft board somewhere.

The Reds beat the Houston Astros again Saturday, 6-3. They set a franchise record for wins in April with their 17th. They've won six straight and nine of 10, and they're in first place in the NL Central. They have the best record in baseball. They have tremendous upside.

"I know the baseball world is probably in shock," said reliever Kent Mercker.

Well, yeah.

Picked by most to finish on the floor, the Reds are dancing on the ceiling. The question is not if the Reds will keep you entertained the next few months. They will. The question is if you're ready to let them.

"It would be a shame not to give your heart to this team, just for the heart this team plays with," suggested manager Jerry Narron.

It's beginning to look that way, isn't it? It certainly did Saturday. The Reds rallied in the fourth inning against Astros starter Andy Pettitte, scoring four times on just one well-hit ball. Phillips was in the center of it all, again. The guy has been Christmas morning for three weeks.

With two on and one out, Phillips bounced a hit just in front of the plate. It went all of 30 feet, but Phillips ran the 30-yard dash in about 3 seconds. In a rush, Pettitte threw wildly to first. One run scored on the hit, another on Pettitte's error.

Phillips moved to second on a single, stole third and scored on a wild pitch. Pettitte, cruising after three innings, suddenly was behind 4-2 after the fourth.

Aaron Harang took it from there, bulldogging his way through 114 pitches and going seven-plus innings for the third time in his last four starts. Meanwhile, Reds were diving all over the yard, whether it was Phillips on the bases or Ryan Freel laying out for a ball in center field or catcher Jason LaRue lunging for a bunted popup in front of the plate.

Is your heart ready to fall?

"A lot of it goes back to the trade (for) Bronson Arroyo," said Narron. "I cannot tell you the excitement in the clubhouse that we got a legitimate starter that has pitched in big games and has pitched a lot of innings."

Getting Arroyo told players that management was serious this time, no small issue given the perceived front-office lethargy during the previous three years. Reds players know they will hit enough to win. As Mercker said: "We finished fifth out of six in our division last year and led the league in runs. If we can pitch - and we don't even have to be really good, just good - we can win a lot of games."

I asked Mercker and infielder Rich Aurilia the meaning of April for this team. Between them, they have played in the postseason nine times, which is nine more than eight of the members of the starting lineup Saturday.

"It's everything," said Mercker. "You hear it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. Well, there's a handful of teams that can afford to have a bad April, (that) have enough talent and personnel to overcome it. We're not one of those teams."

April won't sink the Red Sox or the Braves. It's already done in the Pittsburgh Pirates. After 24 games last year, the Reds were 10-14 on their way to 11-20. Watching the NFL draft instead of baseball seemed almost logical.

Now the Reds are 17-7 and starting to show they can win games when they don't hit several home runs. A quick glance at the competition reveals St. Louis and not much. In a three-game series, the Cardinals can throw Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and a rejuvenated Sidney Ponson. They still have Scott Rolen and the Great Pujols in the center of the order. But Jim Edmonds is almost 36, no one else in the lineup frightens you and their fourth and fifth starters, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan, are less than special.

When does the bandwagon begin selling seats?

E-mail pdaugherty@enquirer.com

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