John Clay

The Reds are interesting again, but they’re not yet contenders

Don’t look now, but the Cincinnati Reds have become sort of interesting again. They’re not headed for another season of 90-plus losses. Their pitching is better. They have a potential star in a rookie center fielder — when he’s not hurt, anyway. They have a charismatic right fielder. Their overall approach is different. And, best of all, they’re competitive.

All that does not, however, make the Reds contenders.

Not yet.

This weekend was a perfect example. After taking two of three from the visiting Chicago Cubs and then three of four from the visiting Milwaukee Brewers, the Reds finished their nine-game home stand by being blown out in back-to-back games by the in-state rival Cleveland Indians. Saturday’s score was 7-2. Sunday’s score was a runaway 11-1.

“Two games doesn’t take away from what we’ve been able to do,” Manager David Bell said afterward. “And what we’ve been able to do is give ourselves a chance going into the second half.”

Indeed, the Reds hit the All-Star break at 41-46, five games under .500. In any other MLB division, that would be a steep mountain to climb. But the Reds aren’t in just any division. They’re in the jumbled-up National League Central, where parity has been the name of the game. After the games of July 7, only 4.5 games separate the two teams (Milwaukee and Chicago) tied for first from the team in last place (the Reds).

“Right now, we’re in the hunt, there’s no doubt,” reliever Jared Hughes said. “But we’d rather be leading the hunt.”

“We ran into a good team, good lineup,” Bell said after Sunday’s shellacking.

The bashing, however, only feeds Bell’s critics, who complain that the Reds’ first-year manager is influenced too much by analytics, that he yanks his starters too early and depends on his bullpen too much. Never mind that as an organization the Reds are finally catching up to what their opponents are doing and that the Reds are sixth among National League clubs in least number of bullpen innings used. They entered Sunday second in the National League behind just the Los Angeles Dodgers in team ERA (3.57) and second (behind Atlanta) in bullpen ERA (3.87).

“With the pitching being as good as it has, the one thing we’ve relied on is the talent of our bullpen,” Bell said. “We’ll need to continue to do that. It’s a big part of the game, a big part of our game.”

So what do the Reds need to do better in the second half of the season?

“Hit,” said Nick Senzel, the aforementioned rookie center fielder, who suffered an ankle sprain Sunday when he banged into the wall trying to make first-inning catch.

“Same (ankle) as he had before, but a different area and not nearly as bad,” Bell said. “We’re hoping to have him back first day after the break.”

They need him. Senzel is hitting just .263, but he’s feeling his way. He has the makings of a star. The sooner the better. The Reds are 14th in the National League in both batting average and runs scored. And that’s with the popular Yasiel Puig getting hot of late. The right fielder, who came over from the Dodgers in a trade has boosted his average from .207 on June 9 to .257 after going 2-for-4 Sunday.

Now comes the break. Unlike the last four seasons when they lost 98, 94, 94 and 95 games, the Reds are not out of it at the All-Star break. But they’re not really in it. Not yet. This weekend proved that.

“One thing that has allowed us to be in this position we’re in, which is to have a chance in the division, is when we bounce back,” Bell said. “We’ve talked about it as a team, the team that succeeds in this division is the team that does that the best, the team that bounces back.”

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