No argument: Reds playing tough
By Marc Lancaster / Post staff reporter
MILWAUKEE - It wouldn't really be accurate to say the Reds have turned tough-guy.
They're still an easygoing bunch, not inclined to engage in beanball wars the Chicago teams seem to embrace so fondly. But there is a little fire lurking beneath the surface, something rarely seen from this group in recent years.
It bubbled up on two occasions Friday night. Manager Jerry Narron got himself ejected, then went chest-to-chest with the umpire he felt had wronged him. Four innings later, Adam Dunn brought some Texas football to Packers Country, barreling into Brewers catcher Damian Miller in an unsuccessful attempt to score the go-ahead run.
Neither show of force played directly into Friday's 4-3 Cincinnati victory at Miller Park, but both were indicative of the evolution of the Reds into a legitimate playoff contender.
"The most important thing is, you've got to come to the ballpark every single day and expect to win," said catcher Jason LaRue. "I think that attitude has probably been about the biggest difference. We really expect to win every single day."
That will has manifested itself lately not only in shows of force like the one Dunn delivered Friday, but in the resilience the Reds have displayed. Now that their revamped pitching staff has found a way to keep them away from the wrong end of blowout margins in the middle and late innings, they firmly believe they can overcome any deficit.
A week ago Friday at Great American Ball Park, the Reds stunned these same Brewers by scoring twice in the seventh inning and three times in the ninth for a 6-5 victory. This series opener wasn't nearly as dramatic, but it did feature the Reds pulling themselves off the mat for yet another knockout.
The unlikely catalyst for what proved to be the winning run was Chris Denorfia, who hadn't seen the field since last Saturday before pinch-hitting for Eric Milton in the top of the eighth. There already were two outs in the inning when Denorfia singled sharply up the middle, bringing Ryan Freel to the plate.
The leadoff man was 0-for-4 to that point, but he yanked a double down the left-field line and Denorfia never stopped running. The young outfielder crossed the plate standing up and the Reds had pulled themselves out of a 3-0 hole to take the lead.
Last time the Reds visited Miller Park, just over three weeks ago, pulling ahead late would only have ratcheted up their own stress level. That series around the Fourth of July was a low point for the Reds' bullpen, which imploded night after night.
A different group of relievers was entrusted with this lead.
Todd Coffey and Bill Bray didn't make it easy, but they teamed up again to escape the eighth inning with a zero before handing it off to a man who arrived just after that last Milwaukee series, closer Eddie Guardado.
The veteran lefty would say he "got lucky" after Royce Clayton bailed him out of a first-and-third, one-out jam by going to the ground to start a game-ending double play, but that's the kind of luck that Reds relievers rarely had before.
"The last series we were in here is one of the big reasons that really forced us to go out and get some bullpen help," said Narron. "Just the way our bullpen's set up right now, you've got a veteran guy like Eddie at the end of the game and that means everything."
It didn't look good for the Reds in the early going, as Milton gave up three runs in the bottom of the first inning, but the enigmatic left-hander was consistently effective the rest of the way. Milton allowed four hits to the first five batters he faced, but only one hit to the final 24 men he saw. Beginning with a called third strike on Miller that ended the first inning with two men on base, he retired 19 of 22 batters to wrap up his seven-inning stint.
Milton was just beginning to right himself when Narron was tossed from a game for the fourth time this season. Unhappy about a called third strike on Ryan Freel that ended the top of the second inning, the Reds' manager let home plate umpire Brian Runge hear about it from the dugout. With two outs in the bottom of the second, Runge had absorbed enough and ejected Narron, who stormed onto the field to get his money's worth.
Or, maybe not.
"If I'd gotten my money's worth," said Narron, "I probably would have stood on the grass and made some strike and ball calls."
Another time, perhaps. The Reds seem up for anything lately, and much of it is tied back to that belief they have - which is swiftly turning into momentum. They have picked up two games in as many days on the St. Louis Cardinals and now sit just three and a half games back in the division while continuing to lead the wild card race by two and a half.
LaRue described the feeling as an "aura" that everybody has grasped.
"Once you get that aura and you expect it, the positives are going to come with it," he said. "It's a lot easier to win when you do have that attitude. If you don't, it seems like people would be sitting back waiting for something (bad) to happen or expecting something to happen. I don't think that's the case anymore."
Witness Friday night.
"It was another Reds win," said Guardado. "Exciting baseball."