CINCINNATI — A sweep wasn't in the cards. Homer Bailey, the Reds' inconsistent starter, lasted less than five innings Wednesday. The Brewers' Zack Grienke pitched a strong six. Milwaukee salvaged the finale of a three-game set, doubling Cincinnati 8-4.
It was getaway day, actually. Bags packed, the Reds boarded a post-game plane bound for California. Three cities and 11 games await before the All-Star break. The trip is not make-or-break for the NL Central leader, but it's surely important given a pair of nagging doubts considering the baseball club in Cincinnati.
No. 1 is the Cards. No. 2 is the manager. The Reds' manager.
The Cardinals are the defending world champs, after all. They may have lost Albert Pujols, but not their moxie. Carlos Beltran has cranked 20 home runs already. The injured Lance Berkman could return by late July. Don't ever count out the Cards.
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The Reds are the better team. Joey Votto is the best hitter in the National League, if not baseball. Brandon Phillips remains the magic man at second base. If Johnny Cueto is not the NL's All-Star starting pitcher, he will at least be in the discussion. The better team doesn't always win, however. Small things matter.
That brings us to Dusty Baker. This isn't to bash the skipper's overall job performance. Baker relates well to his players. He has their trust. He boasts the experience of being in several pennant races.
Baker's acumen played no role in Wednesday's outcome. The skipper said Bailey made but two mistakes — a two-run homer to Rickie Weeks in the second inning, a two-run homer to Cody Ransom on an 0-2 pitch in the third — but those are the mistakes Bailey continually makes.
"Just two mistakes," said Baker of the Ransom dinger. "Then they kept adding runs."
"Like Dusty said, just two bad pitches," Bailey said. "Sometimes, that's all it takes."
In the clubhouse, Baker hits the right notes. Between the lines, it's often a different tune.
Start with his lineup cards. Baker keeps batting Zack Cozart at the top though (a) the former Ole Miss star is a rookie and (b) a streaky one at that. The shortstop singled in the eighth inning Wednesday to snap an 0-for-19 streak. His on-base percentage is below .300.
The Baker book says speed goes on top, however. Thus Cozart and Drew Stubbs bat 1-2, while Todd Frazier and Ryan Hanigan bat in the bottom third. Frazier owns a .329 on-base percentage. Hanigan is at .361.
The Baker book says bunt with runners on base. Time and score rarely matter. At least one home run has been hit in 65 straight games at Great American Ballpark. Yet, Baker keeps playing small ball.
Then there's the pitching moves. Sunday, Mike Leake pitched eight innings of stellar, two-run baseball against Minnesota. He threw just 86 pitches. Didn't matter. In came Aroldis Chapman for the ninth. "That's his job," Baker said.
Never mind Chapman had struggled mightily his last six outings. Those continued. Josh Willingham timed a fireball and sent it deep for a two-run game-winning homer.
Tuesday night, Bronson Arroyo pitched 71⁄3 innings of no-hit ball before obviously losing it. Obvious to everyone but Baker, who went too long with his starter. By the time the call was made to the pen, the game was tied, 3-3.
Lucky for the skipper, Stubbs turned hero, hitting the first pitch of the bottom of the eighth for a homer and, ultimately, a 4-3 win. For his game-winner, Stubbs was out of the lineup on Wednesday. Another head-scratcher.
Maybe the players will reward Baker's trust by turning his mysterious moves into magic. Maybe the Reds are so much better than the rest of the division, their lack of consistency won't matter. But don't count on it. St. Louis had won five straight heading into Wednesday night to pull within two games of first place.
The Cards are headed up. The Reds are headed west. And there's a long way to go.