Too bad John Kruk didn't read this article.

June 9, 2006

Reds just might stick around in NL Central
Pujols injury, other Cards issues, have opened up division

By Tony DeMarco / contributor

Yes, that was the Cincinnati Reds you saw tied atop the National League Central with the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday, and if youíre wondering how that happened so quickly, youíre far from alone. But to think itís only the result of Albert Pujolsí injury would be far too narrow a viewpoint.

The Reds took five games off what was thought to be a solid Cardinalsí lead in just a weekís time the unexpected way: They swept a three-game series in Houston ó something they hadnít done in seven years ó and then swept another in St. Louis ó something they hadnít done in eight years. And just like that, the Reds are in a fight with the Pujols-less Cardinals, a comfortable distance from the rest of the division.

The calendar tells you that 100 or so games remain on the schedule. But there were causes for concern in St. Louis even before the gameís most indispensable player landed on the disabled list for an indefinite period, and the three teams expected to give the Cardinals the biggest challenge ó the Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs ó all are sitting below .500.

So you canít help but think that maybe the win-now expectation instilled by new owner Robert Castellini that has filtered down through the front office and clubhouse can last late into this summer. A look at the NL Central contenders just past the one-third poll:

Cardinals: You know that any team managed by Tony La Russa will grind its way through adversity, and not lose sight of the 162-game marathon. You also know they are going to stand and deliver quotes about there being no reason to panic, and how everybody else has to pick up the slack.

But: They lost consecutive series at home to division rivals, were 1-3 in their first four games without Pujols and endured a 15-inning scoreless streak. The starting pitchers picked a real bad time to allow 21 earned runs in 28 innings in their last turn through the five-man rotation. That hasnít made it any easier on a bullpen that has sprung a few leaks, including closer Jason Isringhausen, who blew two save opportunities in succession and subsequently was shut down for a couple of days.

In short, this probably isnít going to be the division-title cakewalk they had last season, when they won by 11 games and were never threatened. But at least all of these figure to be temporary problems, and the Cards have played through key losses ó Rolen and Chris Carpenter, to name two ó before.

From afar, Pirates manager Jim Tracy offered this reasoned analysis: ďFor whatever period of time (Pujols) is out, there is no way they can replace that bat. And that is no lack of respect meant to whoever replaces him in the lineup. But will it be a more devastating injury than the one to Derrek Lee? That remains to be seen. It doesnít necessarily have to play out that way.

ďTo say that would be showing no respect for the other guys on that team ó Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen. They are the team at the forefront. You canít argue with what they have done. And right now, they lead the division.íí

Reds: They have teased before. Twice recently, as a matter of fact. In 2002, they were 34-25 and led the Cardinals by a game, only to lose 11 of 15 and finish 78-84, 19 games behind. Two years ago, they were 34-22 and tied with the Cardinals, then lost 10 of their next 14 and finished 29 games back. So how could it be different this time?

Right where it matters most ó in the starting rotation. Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang are a combined 14-6 and scattered across various league leader categories. And Eric Milton, whose signing was viewed as one of the major failures of the Dan OíBrien era, is 4-1 with a 1.71 ERA in starts other than the two wrapped around his stay on the disabled list.

In fact, the Redsí rotation is second in the league behind the Dodgers in ERA, helping the entire staff to a middle-of-the-pack showing in that category. And that is very, very different from last season, when the Reds staff was dead-last in the league in ERA.

Todd Coffey has stepped into the closer role, easing out career-long setup man David Weathers, and Felipe Lopez and Brandon Phillips are an athletic and potent middle-infield combination. The offense isnít at the top of the league in runs and homers as it was a year ago, but health permitting ó the latest Ken Griffey Jr. injury is expected to be minor ó it should produce above-average numbers over the season.

And with Castellini in charge and new GM Wayne Krivsky already having made a couple of excellent acquisitions in Arroyo and Phillips, you have to figure the Reds will strike again before the trade deadline if deemed necessary.

Astros: Youíve already imagined the scenario: Roger Clemens is on his magical mystery tour through the Astrosí minor-league system, gearing for a tentative June 22nd return in Houston against Minnesota. Heíll be rejoining much the same cast that rallied from a 15-30 start, finished the regular season on a 36-10 roll, and advanced all the way to the 2005 World Series.

But while the faces are the same, the results havenít been. So a repeat of last yearís improbable march isnít likely. The Astros did it in 2005 with incredible pitching. They got a super-human effort from a 42-year-old Roger Clemens, who led the league in ERA. Right behind him was Andy Pettitte. Roy Oswalt won 20 games, and until the post-season, Brad Lidge was a lights-out closer. The staff was second in the league in ERA.

But look at this season: Oswalt is on the DL with back issues. Pettitte is struggling with command and has a six-plus ERA. Lidge has been in and out of the closer role and constantly tinkering with his mechanics. Brandon Backe also is on the DL. Three rookies have combined to make 20 starts, and the staff is 14th in the league in ERA. Clemens can only do so much, and ó what else is new? ó manager Phil Garner is looking for signs of life from the bottom half of his batting order.

Brewers: Things are unraveling after an encouraging first seven weeks. A 5-0 start, 14-11 April and 26-23 record as late as May 27 has dissolved into an eight-game losing streak and nine losses in 11 games. And that elusive winning season ó which hasnít happened since 1992 ó should remain the main focus, rather than the postseason.

Ben Sheets hasnít pitched in more than a month, and his Cy Young-type season will have to wait another year. Six starters already have been used in the other two spots in the rotation behind Chris Capuano, Doug Davis and David Bush, and an overtaxed bullpen hasnít been up to the task. The staff ERA is last in the National League, and manager Ned Yost already has run through 24 different pitchers.

And there remains no firm evidence that the club will re-sign slugger Carlos Lee, which already has led to some unsettling trade speculation.

Cubs: We include them only because of some recent signs of life, and the impending (so we think) return of Mark Prior, plus Derrek Lee probably late this month. Of course, Kerry Wood has made a couple of starts in his latest comeback, only to face another trip to the shoulder doctor.

After a miserable 5-23 stretch from April 29-May 28, the Cubs have won five of their last nine against the rest of the NL Central, and averaged more than five runs per game in doing so. A best-case scenario over the next six-seven weeks of Wood, Prior and Lee returning and a climb back to near .500 could cancel a late-July selloff of expensive parts such as disappointing Juan Pierre and free-agent-to-be Greg Maddux. Then again, thatís asking quite a bit.