Tuesday August 16th, 2011

The Cincinnati Reds can't put their put their fingers on it. One of those years, they say.

When we hit, we don't pitch. When we pitch, we leave runners in scoring position. The Reds spent June and July waiting for something to happen. They wished and hoped, led by manager Dusty Baker, who promised the masses that his team was on the verge of breaking through.

(Baker had nothing but blind faith to support that, given the Reds won as many as three games in a row exactly once between May 17 and July 28, a stretch of 63 games.)

The defending NL Central champs did win four straight last week. By then, they trailed Milwaukee by 10 games, making October a month for packing up. "One of those years, man,'' said pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who knows what he's talking about. Arroyo won 17 games last season; this year, he's 7-9 with a 5.31 ERA.

If those involved are shrugging in befuddlement, their fans can clue them in. Cincinnati isn't St. Louis, but it's a pretty good baseball city. After 91 wins and a division title in 2010, the fans expected equally big things this year. A stable of players on the verge would keep the Reds relevant past Labor Day.

Problem is, players on the verge can go either way. The cusp has a peak and a ledge. Cincinnati's stunning inconsistency this summer owes to those players, still seeking their major league equilibrium. More than a few are teetering. "They're kids,'' Baker said last month in exasperation, attempting to explain/defuse his team's yo-yo work this season.

Kids will be kids. When they're good -- Jay Bruce drove in 33 runs in May and was NL Player of the Month -- they are very good. When they're not -- Drew Stubbs leads the world in strikeouts, Opening Day starter Edinson Volquez has been to Triple-A twice -- they make you want to holler and throw up your hands.

Fans haven't been appeased. Attendance is up 2,400 a game. The team's 12 sellouts ties a club record. But the fan on the street has spent lots of 2011 doing what fans do best: Complain and explain. At times, the whole town sounds like talk radio.

Fire Baker!

Trade Bruce!

Demote Stubbs!

Release Volquez!

Even baseball has become a game of immediate reward. Reds fans want the same payoff from the entire team that they get when Aroldis Chapman pitches the 8th inning and strikes out the side on 12 pitches. Because they're fans, they're not always rational about it.

There are statistical reasons. In baseball, there are always statistical reasons.

Reigning NL MVP Joey Votto is having a good season, not an MVP season. Votto leads the league in on-base percentage (.430). He has been among the league leaders in walks (85), runs (78) and batting average (.318) all year. But he has no protection behind him in the lineup. He doesn't get a lot of pitches to hit, so his power numbers have lagged.

Bruce's numbers will look large by the end of the year. But if you want a poster-guy for Reds baseball, there he is. Bruce was one of the best players in baseball in May. But in April, June and July, he hit a total of nine homers and drove in 30 runs.

Stubbs is second in the league in runs (80). He also has struck out 158 times, which isn't ideal when you bat leadoff much of the time. Volquez, a 17-game winner in 2008, can't throw strikes. Homer Bailey, a former No. 1 pick in his fourth full season, is a .500 pitcher.

Chapman is a sideshow. The Cuban Missile is making millions to throw flaming fastballs as a set-up man. And so on. The Reds have had a few kids to build on. Johnny Cueto leads the NL in ERA (1.94). Mike Leake has 10 wins. Each is closer to the peak than the ledge. But overall, all those youngsters that fans were certain would improve have not. At least not enough to change this dismal year.

Because Cincinnati fans are no different from fans anywhere, many would like to run Baker out of town. And in truth, this hasn't been Baker's finest job. His light touch kept players such as Bruce and Stubbs relaxed last season. The pair responded by playing well in September.

Baker had ample clubhouse help last season from veterans Scott Rolen, Arthur Rhodes and Orlando Cabrera. This year, Cabrera and Rhodes are elsewhere and Rolen has played only 65 games. There is no one snapping the clubhouse towel and Baker has been unwilling to play bad cop. Too many players assumed success without aggressively seeking it.

Fans carp about Baker's lineup oddities and the notion he plays veteran players beyond reason. Jonny Gomes was the team's leftfielder for a month while he hit around .200. A manager's best work is in tone-setting. Baker has been a little tone-deaf this season. The Reds allowed the season to happen to them. It has, dismally.

Smart fans also look to the front office. Philadelphia swept the Reds out of the playoffs last year. In the offseason, the Phillies added Cliff Lee. The Reds acquired outfielder Fred Lewis. They were content and confident with the players they had. They made no moves before the trade deadline.

They wasted Chapman's year. Instead of keeping the flamethrower in Triple-A and acquainting him with starting pitching, they used him as an 8th-inning sideshow. For three months in Triple-A, they played their best hitting prospect in leftfield, hoping natural first baseman Yonder Alonso would learn the position.

When the club promoted Alonso late last month, he was given a three-game trial in leftfield in a series at Wrigley Field. It was disastrous, so they pulled him and have said he likely won't be out there again. Prompting the question: Why three months in leftfield in Triple-A?

Either the Reds have underachieved in 2011, or management overestimated drastically the talent on hand. Regardless, the Reds have wasted a year, never a good idea for a small-market club where the money clock always ticks.

How many teams send their Opening Day and Game 2 pitchers to the minors halfway through a season? Thank you, Edinson Volquez and Travis Wood. Here are your bus tickets.

Answers are in short supply. Unless the fan on the street has the microphone. In which case, everyone is fired.

More likely, the Reds will learn about themselves on the fly, beginning next February. Darned kids. You never know about 'em.

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