John Clay

John Clay: Reds' rotation the real thing

ESPN and a sellout crowd descended on Great American Ball Park on Wednesday night to see the pitching phenom who is Stephen Strasburg.

After watching Strasburg's Nats best the Reds that night, no doubt Washington has an arm.

But the Reds have arms.

Strange, but true. This is the franchise of the Big Red Machine, the bombastic bats that routinely pummeled foes all through the '70s. This is the team that plays in the popcorn-box that is Great American Ball Park, where every fly ball can turn into a home run ball. And yet, this is a team with, for one of the few times in its history, abundant pitching.

Starting pitching, anyway. Consider that Aaron Harang was Cincinnati's opening day starter. Now, at whatever undetermined date Harang comes off the disabled list from a back spasms bout, he is likely the sixth starter in a five-man rotation.

Bronson Arroyo is arguably the Cincinnati ace, his record 10-5, his ERA at 4.26 after a rare poor start on Wednesday. Johnny Cueto is 10-2 overall, with a 1.06 ERA over his last five starts. Mike Leake has a 7-1 record, a 3.45 ERA, and a solid shot at Rookie of the Year honors if the voters choose to disregard Strasburg's superior strikeout totals. Fellow rookie Travis Wood has a 2.76 ERA and a near-perfect game to his credit. He had allowed six earned runs over 262⁄3 innings before his start Friday night — six innings, four earned runs — in Houston.

Then there's the addition of Edinson Volquez, back from a 12-month rehab after Tommy John surgery. His elbow reconstructed, Volquez is throwing the baseball even better than before. In his 2010 debut last Saturday against Colorado, Volquez gave up just three hits and one run in six innings. He was wild Thursday against Washington, walking four and allowing six hits in 21⁄3 innings, but ups and downs must be expected.

Don't forget Homer Bailey, though many may have forgotten Bailey since the right-hander has been on the disabled list since May 24. He threw three innings of a simulated game on Wednesday.

"My slider was off, but it's usually the last pitch to come through," he said after throwing somewhere between 45-50 pitches. "My fastball felt pretty good."

"His command was above average," Manager Dusty Baker reported.

Bailey is scheduled to make a rehab start Monday in Dayton. If that goes well, he could have another start before returning to the big club.

But will the Reds have room? Sam LeCure threw the ball reasonably well in six starts through late May and early June, yet was shipped back to Louisville to make room for Wood. After making seven starts for the Reds last year, Matt Maloney was recently called up for two starts this season. Second outing, Maloney gave up one run in six innings, yet was returned to Louisville before the All-Star break to make room for Volquez.

Best news: Arroyo, at 33 years, and Harang, at 32, are the rotation's old men. Volquez is 27. Maloney and LeCure are each 26. Bailey and Cueto are 24. Wood is 23. Leake is 22. The latter two may be the best of the group. All are experiencing their first pennant race.

Remember, this is the franchise that from 1999 to 2003 used its first-round picks in the June draft to take pitchers Ty Howington ('99), Jeremy Sowers ('01), Chris Gruler ('02) and Ryan Wagner ('03). None of those pitchers is in the Major Leagues. Sowers, ex-Louisville Ballard star, did not sign with Cincinnati. He ended up in Cleveland, but is currently stuck in AAA. In 72 major-league appearances, Sowers' ERA is 5.18.

Sounds like Cincinnati past, not its present. The Cardinals are supposedly in the hunt to acquire Houston ace Roy Oswalt. Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty has said the Reds are more likely to stand pat. For the first time in a long time, the Reds have the hand to stand pat. Or the arms.