CINCINNATI — On their way to their first playoff appearance in 15 years, the Cincinnati Reds did a lot of things right. A year later, they can't even win two games in a row. And they're starting to run out of time to get their act together.
The defending NL Central champions are struggling to stay in contention with virtually the same lineup that brought home a title. Veterans Scott Rolen and Jonny Gomes haven't played to last season's form, problems at shortstop and left field have lingered, and the rotation has been in flux because of injuries and mononucleosis.
The Reds haven't won back-to-back games since June 14-15, a span of five stunning weeks that has left them stranded in fourth place.
"You don't like it, but you've got to deal with it," Manager Dusty Baker said. "You've just got to keep fighting and scuffling."
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And hoping that a lot of very bad trends begin to change ...soon.
"I think at some point, we're going to end up playing well and winning a bunch of games," NL MVP Joey Votto said. "But it's just kind of how it's been this year. It will click at some point."
The Reds had everything clicking during their season-opening homestand. They won their first five games while scoring 43 runs, their best such start since the Big Red Machine rolled through the National League. It seemed like a carry-over from 2010, when they led the league in most offensive categories.
Instead, it turned out to be their high point. It quickly became apparent that it was going to be a whole different year for the same Reds roster.
Cincinnati spent more than $150 million in the off-season on contract extensions for Votto, right fielder Jay Bruce, and starters Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto. They had several problem areas — shortstop and left field topped the list — but went for modest solutions that haven't worked.
They let shortstop Orlando Cabrera leave, buying out his option year rather than paying him $4 million. They tried to replace him with backup Paul Janish and newcomer Edgar Renteria. The outcome? Janish struggled and was demoted. And Renteria is hitting .232 with one homer and 14 RBI.
The pitching has been in flux because of injuries. Homer Bailey has been on the disabled list twice. Johnny Cueto went on the DL with a bum shoulder during spring training, but has a 1.98 ERA in 14 starts. Arroyo came down with mononucleosis that persisted into the season — he's 7-8 with a 5.57 ERA.
Opening-day starter Edinson Volquez was so ineffective that he was sent to the minors. The Reds thought hard-throwing left-hander Aroldis Chapman could help fill the setup role vacated by lefty Arthur Rhodes, but he couldn't get his 105 mph fastball over the plate. He wound up in the minors for a while, too.
Despite the issues, they've managed to stay in contention. They had a chance to move into first place during the last week before the All-Star break, when they played seven games in St. Louis and Milwaukee. Closer Francisco Cordero, who had blown only two saves chances to that point, blew three straight to end those hopes and knock Cincinnati back to the fringe.
Since the All-Star break, they've struggled to drive in runs. Twice this week, they were shut out in Pittsburgh.
"I just feel like lately, we've been beating ourselves," second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "There's a lot of games we feel we should have won, but runners in scoring position has just been real tough for us this year.
"But you know, once we start getting them runs in, I feel like nobody can beat us."