CINCINNATI — It's a different Reds team. Bash brothers are out. Defense is in. So is small ball. And pitching. Don't forget the pitching. You can never forget the pitching.
Cincinnati's motto for 2009: Hope for the bats, bank on the arms.
So the 2-1 loss to the New York Mets on a rainy opening day Monday might have been a bit discouraging, considering the home team squeezed out just three hits and made some misplays in the field, i.e. outfield, if it were not for one ray of sunshine on a chilled 37-degree day.
"I love the way Aaron Harang pitched," said Dusty Baker, the Reds manager.
How could you not?
True, making his fourth consecutive opening-day start, the 30-year-old threw 114 pitches and allowed seven hits and walked three over just five innings. But Harang gave up just one run. Several of those Mets who reached base surely felt lucky having done so. There was a blooper that fell where a Red was not, and oh yes, we might have mentioned, it was 37 degrees.
"They only hit one ball hard off of him, and that was the home run," said second baseman Brandon Phillips, mentioning Daniel Murphy's fifth-inning line shot that found the right field seats.
Last year, off Harang, many balls were hit hard. This was a surprise. A major surprise.
The previous three seasons, the 6-foot-7 San Diego native had been the best pitcher on a bad staff. Harang went 11-13 in '05, 16-11 in '06 and 16-7 in 2007. He threw 2112⁄3 innings in '05, 2341⁄3 in '06 and 2312⁄3 in '07. His ERA in all three of those years was comfortably under four.
But with last year came sudden collapse. Harang started the season 1-5. He then slipped to 3-13. He finished up 6-17. In the National League, only Houston's Brandon Backe recorded as many losses. Harang's ERA ballooned from 3.73 in '07 to 4.78.
Some blamed a four-inning relief stint in San Diego on May 25, a routine-change from which Harang never appeared to fully recover.
Others looked at the pitcher's midsection. Never svelte, at one point last summer he sent the scales to 284.
That had to change, and it did. Off-season, Harang took an early start to conditioning. He changed his workout. He changed his diet. He changed his arrival time to Sarasota's spring training. By the time he reached Florida, Harang weighed 251 pounds. He said he could feel the difference.
Now, he has to show it. If the Reds really are going to surprise via pitching and defense, then Harang has to come through on the front end. He has to return to the top of the rotation, delivering seven and eight innings a start, throwing darts, nixing jams. That's just the way he pitched Monday.
"I was really having to battle and grind it out," he said afterward. "I felt great. They just made me work."
First inning, Mets at first and second with two out, Harang got Carlos Beltran to sky harmlessly to center. Fourth inning, with New Yorkers filling the bases and two outs, he coaxed his opposite number, Johan Santana, into a fly ball to center. Fifth inning, after Murphy's one-out home run had snapped a scoreless tie, Harang benefitted from the aforementioned defense — right fielder Jay Bruce threw out David Wright at the plate — then tricked Ryan Church into hitting a two-out, two-on liner right at second baseman Phillips.
"The biggest thing," said Harang, "was being able to get out of those jams with no real damage done."
The best thing was the way Harang threw the ball. The 114 pitches were no problem. The hits were mostly softies. One of his three walks was intentional.
"He threw some quality pitches," said Baker. "We can win a lot of games if he pitches like that."
Not this game, on this day, but for these new-look Reds, the point was well-taken.