John Clay: As second half begins, Reds leaning heavily on pitching

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 16, 2014 

  • NL CENTRAL RACE

    W-L Pct GB

    Milwaukee 53-43 .552 —

    St. Louis 52-44 .542 1

    Cincinnati 51-44 .537 1½

    Pittsburgh 49-46 .516 3½

    Chicago 40-54 .426 12

  • NEXT GAME

    Reds at New York Yankees

    When: 7:05 p.m. Friday

    TV: Fox Sports Ohio

The engine may not have started on the first pull, but give Cincinnati Reds Manager Bryan Price props for keeping a hobbled vehicle on the road.

After catching fire to go 22-10 before the All-Star break, the Reds are but 1 1/2 games behind the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers when play resumes Friday.

Here's a first-half Reds review and second-half preview.

The good

Superb starting pitching is the reason a rampant rash of injuries hasn't kicked the legs out from under Price's club.

Individually, Johnny Cueto's 2.13 ERA is third-best in the majors. Overall, the Reds are seventh in the National League and ninth in the major leagues in team ERA.

Teams are hitting a MLB-low .234 against Reds pitchers. Power pitching is a prime reason. The staff averages 8.04 strikeouts per nine innings, fifth-best in the majors. Aroldis Chapman has struck out a batter in a record 41 straight appearances.

On offense, Jersey boy Todd Frazier has returned to his 2012 form. After slipping from a .273 batting average to .234 last season, Frazier appears much more comfortable now, hitting .280 with 19 homers and 53 RBI. His OPS is a career-high .853.

The bad

All the bruised apples in the fruit bowl. Price has dealt with a constantly remade roster thanks to 13 different players visiting the disabled list. Joey Votto has been on the DL twice. So has Devin Mesoraco.

Three days before the All-Star break, second baseman Brandon Phillips underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb. He will miss up to six weeks.

The offense has suffered. The Reds are 23rd in the majors in on-base percentage, 19th in batting average, 18th in OPS and 19th in runs scored.

Pleasant surprise

Previously a long-relief specialist, Alfredo Simon has been a season-saver as a starter. A Walt Jocketty find off the Baltimore scrap heap two years ago, Simon is tied for the major league lead in wins with 12 and has a sparkling 2.70 ERA.

The lone worry is workload. The 33-year-old had never pitched more than 115 2⁄3 innings in his six-year major league career until the 116 2⁄3 he's already pitched this year.

Runner-up honors to catcher Mesoraco, former first-round pick matching his billing. In 175 major league games before this season, Mesoraco had hit 16 homers. He hit .238 in 103 games last year. At the break, the All-Star is hitting .304 with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

Biggest disappointment

It has to be Votto, though not entirely of his own making. The first baseman's quad muscle has him back on the DL and with no definite date of return. The only certainty appears to be Votto won't be 100 percent this season.

Votto hasn't deserved the piñata treatment, but his last home run was May 10. His batting average is a career-low .255, his OPS a career-low .799.

Votto hit 37 homers and drove in 113 runs in 150 games during his MVP year of 2010. Since his knee surgery year of 2012, Votto has 30 homers and 96 RBI in 224 games.

Best addition

Coming through the farm system, Billy Hamilton earned sizable hype thanks to his supernatural speed. As a rookie, he's come close to actually matching it.

If Hamilton's 38 stolen bases were expected, his batting average has done a steady climb, from .247 on May 30 to .257 on June 14 to .276 on June 24 to .285 now.

His terrific center field play has been a bonus and his smiling, positive attitude has been infectious.

The concerns

When will Votto return? When will Phillips return? After a tough-luck first half, can the Reds escape further damage or is this a year the injury bug keeps biting?

When fully healthy, the Reds have perhaps the best combination of pitching and hitting in the National League. But will this team be fully healthy?

What needs to happen

Jay Bruce needs to go on one of those tears that carries the club. His .229 batting average is his lowest since he hit .223 as a 22-year-old back in 2009. After hitting 30 homers with 109 RBI last year, Bruce has just 10 homers and 41 RBI through 95 games. He's played in 78.

Homer Bailey needs to pitch up to the standards of his $106 million contract. Last year, Bailey's ERA was a career-best 3.49. It's 4.21 now.

And Bryan Price needs to secure a rabbit's foot, or four-leaf clover or some other good luck charm.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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