Inspired to win it all, Reds not letting up
PHILADELPHIA -- It's probably a stretch to say these Cincinnati Reds are creating as much excitement as the Big Red Machine of the 1970s -- or even to compare the two teams.
After all, the Big Red Machine won the World Series in 1975 and '76; the 2012 Reds haven't won anything.
Yet today's Reds, with their incredible pitching and potent offense, are threatening to run away with the National League Central.
"We're different than the Big Red Machine," manager Dusty Baker said on Monday before the Reds played the Phillies. "They probably didn't have the pitching we have, but nobody has had the offensive prowess of the Big Red Machine.
"They had guys winning batting titles, MVPs, Golden Gloves, and how many Hall of Famers did they have? They had three off that team [Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez] and probably could have had a couple more. That was a team of All-Stars."
Baker forgot to mention manager Sparky Anderson also was inducted in Cooperstown.
Comparisons aside, that the Reds are playing so well and drawing sellout crowds to Great American Ball Park is no surprise.
Said veteran third baseman Scott Rolen: "The whole [team] chemistry thing is a good story, but when you have one of the best ERAs in baseball ..." He didn't finish the sentence before adding, "I'm a died-in-the-wool believer in pitching and defense. That's where you start, and it's been that way forever in this game."
Even though the Reds were swept by the Phillies in the 2010 NL Division Series, including Roy Halladay's no-hitter in Game 1, I thought making it to that postseason was merely a first step. First baseman Joey Votto became the NL MVP, and this team was obviously on the upswing.
That led many of us to pick them to go even further in 2011, building on the experience from the year before. Instead, the Reds fell to third place and, frankly, just didn't click -- one of last season's biggest disappointments.
This summer, they've done just the opposite.
They've been in first place 80 days this season, have pushed aside defending the World Series champion Cardinals and done it lately with Votto out with an injured left knee that required arthroscopic surgery.
This should tell you about this team: The Reds are 24-11 since Votto went down on July 16, the best record during that span in the Major Leagues.
"We're lucky we've had players who could fill in," said Baker. "It's quality depth."
Xavier Paul is a good example. He was released by Washington on July 12, quickly signed with the Reds and after a stint at Triple-A Louisville he was promoted to the varsity on July 18. In 26 games, he's batting .342 with a .432 on-base percentage.
General manager Walt Jocketty is quick to say that having Paul eliminated the Reds' quest for a left-handed hitter at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
"It's been fun to be able to be with a team that's winning," said Paul. "I feel fortunate for the opportunity."
And then there's infielders Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart, both NL Rookie of the Year candidates.
"When it comes to rookies, you don't know what you're going to get," said Baker. "It's hard to say what we expected. Frazier has filled in nicely for Scotty and Joey. You find out a lot about people during these times -- who wants to be there and who'd rather not be there. I'm just glad we've got some room for guys who love to compete and love the situation with the possibility of winning."
Votto should be back by the end of month, making this team even stronger. Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos give the Reds' rotation a superb one-two punch, and Aroldis Chapman has been lights-out as a closer with 29 saves and a 1.35 ERA.
The team ERA Rolen and Baker mentioned is 3.38, third best in the NL behind Washington and Los Angeles.
"Offensively, we can put some runs on the board," said Rolen.
Baker said when you look at this year, "Pitching was one of the things we wanted to shore up. We changed the role of Chapman [from starter to reliever]. The thing is, our guys come to play."
From afar, the Reds seem to play with more energy than many of their opponents.
"You feel the energy in the clubhouse," said Paul. "This is a fun bunch of guys that are hungry to win."
Grassroots baseball men often say energy is overrated -- that when a team is winning, it oozes with energy.
"I don't think it's overrated," he said. "Energy is good. It comes from being excited and loving what you do and liking who you're doing it with."
Cincinnati has always had trouble with Philadelphia. After Monday night's 12-5 loss, the Reds have lost the past seven games against the Phillies and haven't won a series against them since 2003.
And even though the five-time NL East champs are having a down year, the Reds consider this four-game series in Philadelphia crucial before they return to St. Louis for another showdown against the Cardinals.
"We're not trying to figure out how we're doing it, we're just doing it," said Baker. "There are still areas where we can improve big time -- like getting runners in from third base. We take pride in our defense, but lately, it hasn't been very good. We've been making errors at an alarming rate, we have to get better at getting bunts down, hitting the cutoff man."
Pausing after putting the trademark toothpick between his teeth, Baker added: "We have to tighten up the game in a lot of small areas in order to continue to play winning baseball, in order to get to the playoffs."
The last time the Reds won the World Series was in 1990, when they were managed by Lou Piniella and swept the Oakland A's.
Not since then has there been so much hope in Cincinnati.
The Reds teased their fans in 2010.
A tough six weeks remain, mostly against winning teams, and Baker is determined not to let this special season slip away.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.