Milton's paradise is lost in Cincinnati
Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler
If he were Homer Bailey with those numbers, Reds fans would be all atwitter. They would point to the rough first innings and say the kid's a little jittery is all and needs to get settled in but, hey, he's been pretty good after that, hasn't he, and the earned run average is passable; the least we can do is cut the fellow some slack.
It's strange how the game works, how a post-teenager who has never been to the big leagues, never slipped off his shoes on a team plane to Milwaukee or the coast, can somehow be accorded more trust and patience than a persevering 31-year-old veteran with 87 victories and still, even after the three miserable seasons Eric Milton has had in Cincinnati, fewer defeats.
In Milton's case, the public trust expired sometime before his team-record home run and ERA totals were completed in 2005. The patience ran out sometime between then and the moment, Tuesday night, when Carlos Lee's first-inning home run dropped into the second-level bleacher deck at Great American Ball Park, 434 feet away from where Milton had left another 84-mph something or other.
The thing is, everybody in the place knew what Lee was going to do. The math isn't difficult. Lee's a big, strong cleanup hitter. Milton is a prolific home-run pitcher. Milton had given up first-inning runs - nine of them - in his four previous starts. He had retired the first two Houston Astros of the evening but walked the third, bringing up the inevitable.
And that - the seeming inevitability of it all - is the problem here. Some of the local disenchantment, no doubt, is the money that Milton makes ($9.8 million this year, the last of three he signed for as a free agent). Some of it is the beating he has taken (16-27 as a Red). But most of it is resignation, the dispiriting feeling, deep down in Cincinnati's gut, that the Reds are whipped when it's Milty's turn.
It's hard not to think that way when a guy has made five starts on the season and never finished an inning with the lead, as it was with Milton heading into Tuesday night. After only three of his 26 innings - the first three - had he not trailed.
It wasn't supposed to be this way when Dan O'Brien doled out $24 million to land a left-hander with a history of winning. There were concerns about Milton's penchant for giving up home runs, and how that would play out in a ballpark known for the same thing; but generally, the news was excellent.
The Reds had actually played the market. They had actually invested in a proven, expensive starting pitcher. It was all a big bravo.
The season before coming to Cincinnati, Milton had been 14-6 in Philadelphia, even while setting a National League record for left-handers by surrendering 40 homers. The Pennsylvanian's success seemed to demonstrate that he was not disadvantaged by the two knee surgeries he had undergone the two previous years.
Maybe, by now, the knees have caught up with him. Maybe it's the elbow, which was operated on last September. Whatever it is, Milton's pitches seldom exceed the mid-80s these days in radar-gun reality. The difference between his fastball and changeup is hardly enough for a hitter to concern himself with.
In Tuesday night's second inning, Milton threw five pitches to Houston rookie Hunter Pence. They were 82, 81, 83, 84 and 85 miles an hour. On the fifth, Pence tripled.
"I think anybody that threw 95 and hits 90 now, it's tough," said Reds reliever and chief cheerleader Eddie Guardado, who was a teammate of Milton's when the latter came up with Minnesota, full of vim and velocity. "He was dominating. Had a good changeup, good curveball, which he still does.
"But Milty doesn't throw 94 anymore. He's becoming a complete pitcher now. Gets the ball up a little bit. But Milty's going to come through because he's a professional, because of the way he works and the way he is up here (tapping his forehead)."
Milton is also a first-rate athlete, as he demonstrated in the fourth inning Tuesday night with a solid two-out, two-run single to pull the Reds within a run after they had fallen behind 4-0. In the fifth, they took the lead on a two-run homer by Ken Griffey Jr.
And in the sixth - this was important - they held it. Milton gave up a leadoff double to Jason Lane, but retired Pence, and then Kirk Saarloos took care of the next two batters. When the inning was over, it was the first all season, finally, that found Milton ahead.
But the Reds, again, failed to stay there. Rookie reliever Brad Salmon surrendered a two-run homer to Lance Berkman in the seventh, and the Astros beat Cincinnati for the sixth time in seven occasions this season.
"I gave up those four runs early, and that's tough to overcome," Milton reflected. "These first innings eat at you. They kill you. You give up three runs in the first and look at your teammates and they look deflated."
That, to his considerable credit, is the sort of frank accountability with which Milton has typically handled the difficulties that have had Great American fans booing him regularly. It's the same strength of character that has enabled him, time and again, to steel himself after another horrible start and somehow keep his team in the game.
"You don't show your emotions in front of the camera," the beleaguered pitcher said after the Reds' sixth loss in seven games. "I can go behind the dugout and show all the emotion I want, but you can't let everybody else see that.
"I want to throw things and beat up things, but I've got to stay calm. I've got to let my teammates know I can go up there and get outs and not be flustered over the first inning."
The net effect, invariably, is another disappointing, gritty and inconclusive performance. For the Reds, it's quite a pickle. Milton rarely pitches so badly that his job must be immediately snatched. And he makes all that cash.
But he makes the money either way, and the question is whether and what it will cost the Reds - in victories and, in turn, significant dollars - to keep him in the rotation. As it stands now, manager Jerry Narron seems inclined to do that.
"I think Milty's pitching better than he has in the past," Narron said Tuesday. "I think he's really working at changing speeds, really working at keeping the ball down. Hopefully he can continue to do that and pitch well for us."
Meanwhile, down in Louisville, there's Bailey with his 1.83 ERA, Phil Dumatrait with a 2.34 and Bobby Livingston at 2.82. If any of them would come to Cincinnati and pitch the way Milton has, who would complain?
And if none was given the chance, who wouldn't?