Cincinnati Reds

John Clay: Clutch hitting fuels Cards' fast start

CINCINNATI — It was just one game in a season of 162, but by now the evidence is starting to mount to the point where after the Cardinals whipped the Reds on Friday night at Great American Ball Park, the Reds' manager made a simple statement.

"The stats don't lie," said Dusty Baker of the Cardinals. "They are the best team in baseball."

The record agrees. Before Saturday's slate of games, St. Louis was the first MLB team to reach 40 wins.

But why are the Cardinals the best team in baseball?

Pitching plays a large role. Entering Saturday night's second game of the three-game set with the Reds, the Cardinals led the major leagues with a 3.18 ERA.

But another important reason was on display Friday night when the Cardinals cruised to a 9-2 win.

No team is better in all of Major League Baseball in getting timely hits.

In fact, it's not even close. The Cardinals are hitting a ridiculous .342 with runners in scoring position. No other MLB team is hitting above .299, where the Tampa Bay Rays sit. No other National League team is hitting above .285, that number belonging to the Colorado Rockies.

Now how about hitting with two outs and runners in scoring position?

The Cardinals are hitting .336. The Padres sit second in that category among National League teams. And the Padres are hitting .276.

With two outs and runners in scoring position, the Reds are hitting .201.

Little wonder that, of late, the Reds are firing on small cylinders, Friday marking their sixth loss in their last nine games.

Meanwhile, six of St. Louis' nine runs on Friday night scored with two outs. The Cards managed eight hits in 17 at-bats with runners in scoring position, including six hits in their first 10 at-bats.

"Big two-out hits again," St. Louis Manager Mike Matheny said. "We've talked about that all season, we make a big deal about it. These guys grind the at-bats."

Reds starter Mike Leake cruised through Friday's first three innings, but two outs into the fourth the Cardinals began their glorious grind.

Boom, boom, boom came back-to-back-to-back run-scoring singles by David Freese, Jon Jay and Pete Kozma, the six, seven and eight hitters in Matheny's lineup.

On the night, the Cardinals came to the plate nine times with runners in scoring position and two outs. They produced seven hits.

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that 118 of the Cards' 304 runs on the season have come with two outs.

"It's just good at-bats," Matheny said. "Even the ones that turn into outs, they're hard-fought. That's a pretty good approach."

Indeed, these Cardinals are the unofficial house organ of fundamental baseball. They play right out of the training manual — consistent at-bats, move runners along, take advantage of opportunity.

"We get hits whenever we need them," Kozma said with sort of a what-else-do-you-want-me-to-say grin.

Deadpan to say, hard to do. Consider that last season the Tigers led the majors in hitting with runners in scoring position and Detroit hit .286, more than 50 points behind this year's Cardinals.

And consider this: Through Friday's games, St. Louis was fifth from the bottom in the entire Major Leagues in home runs.

They have replaced the thunder of Albert Pujols with more of a mushroom approach to manufacturing runs with total disregard to the out count.

One great at-bat a time.

"That's all I think you can attribute it to," Matheny said. "They get in the habit of grinding at-bats and not giving anything away and then realizing that there's money on the table out there. They stick with the same approach.

"A lot of times, I think people try to do too much instead of just having that good, consistent approach."

From the opposite dugout, Baker may not enjoy the view, but he does admire.

"I'd like to find out their secret," said the Reds' manager, "and bottle it."

Cardinals at Reds

When: 8 p.m.

Pitchers: Cardinals, Lynn (8-1); Reds, Arroyo (6-5)

TV/radio: ESPN; WVLK-FM 101.5