These Reds are different.
The sample size is small. True. They had played just 26 games after Tuesday night's 7-0 blanking of the Marlins in Florida, and the Cincinnati Reds' record stood at 14-12. Last year at this time, they were 11-15. That's just a three-win difference. Doesn't look like much.
But look at this: Through Tuesday's games, the Reds led the major leagues in earned run average at 3.61.
That's the major leagues.
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That's the same Reds that finished 23rd in that same all-important category last year with a 4.55 ERA.
That's the same Reds that finished 27th in 2007 at 4.94.
But it's not the same Reds. A franchise that put all its eggs in the power-ball basket, hoping in vain that a succession of sluggers would provide success, has officially changed direction.
There's no more talk about good young pitching. There is good young pitching.
Edinson Volquez threw eight innings of shutout baseball Tuesday night at Florida, for the team's fourth shutout in its past six games. Last time out, in Great American Ball Park against Houston, Volquez pitched eight innings of shutout baseball. He's 4-2 with a 3.47 ERA.
Johnny Cueto has given up one run over his past three starts. That covers 22 innings. Overall, Cueto is 2-1 with a 1.65 ERA.
Heading into Wednesday night's game with Milwaukee, Bronson Arroyo was 4-1. Aaron Harang appears to have rebounded from last year's off year. Harang is 2-3 with a 3.00 ERA. A lack of run support, just 2.6 runs through first five starts, has spoiled the W-L record.
Cueto is 23. Volquez is 25. The old-timers aren't that old. Arroyo is 32. Harang turns 31 on Saturday. For all his ups-and-downs, the prodigy that was once Homer Bailey, now working out the kinks at Louisville, is just 23.
That's the most encouraging aspect to these different Reds. Retreads are out. Youth is in. Joey Votto, he of the .378 battting average, doesn't turn 26 until September. Jay Bruce is 22. Brandon Phillips, who drove in six runs Tuesday, is 28 on June 28. They are the offensive cornerstones.
This is no longer the team of Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey, Jr., self-satisfied stars. Neither exactly went the extra mile. Their work ethic was questionable. Not so with Bruce, Votto and Phillips. And others.
Defensively, the Reds fielding percentage is not much better than a year ago, but fielding percentage is a misleading stat. The team's range is much, much better. Left fielders Chris Dickerson, Jerry Hairston and Laynce Nix get to balls that Dunn never dreamed of reaching. Once a great outfielder, Griffey's skills are now nowhere near that of Bruce, who already has three outfield assists this season.
Hitting is the question. The Reds are 27th in runs scored, down from 23rd a year ago. They have scored three or fewer runs in more than half (14) of their 26 games.
But good pitching has prevailed. Give ex-GM Wayne Krivsky credit for acquiring Volquez and finding Cueto. Give Krivsky credit for signing closer Coco Cordero.
But give new GM Walt Jocketty credit for the smarts to complement the staff by getting catcher Ramon Hernandez out of Baltimore for Ryan Freel and a couple of minor leaguers.
At the time, the trade looked like a minor move. But now, the effect looks much bigger. The 32-year-old veteran has provided a timely bat. Better yet, Hernandez has offered a cool head for the young arms. He knows how to call a game.
And these days, that's where the Reds are showing hope. Not with their bats, but with their arms.