Reds are hottest team in baseball; can Cincy sustain its success?

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Scott Rolen should be the best person to ask. Turns out, he's the worst:

"Are there any similarities between the Cincinnati Reds now and the very good St. Louis teams you played on?'' Between 2002 and 2006, the Cardinals made the postseason three times and the World Series twice, winning it all in '06. Rolen was their third baseman.

"I've quit trying to figure baseball out,'' Rolen said.

It's not a bad strategy, especially in May. The beauty of baseball is its 162 games. Posers don't go unnoticed. The Reds are the hottest team in the game right now. They've won nine of 10 and 16 of 21. Seen in March as a sexy, on-the-rise team, the Reds are in first place in the NL Central and way ahead of schedule.

Cincinnati is attempting something that few small-money teams can manage: Winning on the fly and on a budget, while also building from within. Rolen embodies the approach.

It's working, 39 games into it. "The tough 162,'' Rolen calls it. "This is May 19th. Let's talk again September 19th.''

Baseball people don't trust success. Fans might be giddy over Cincinnati's best start in four years and its first legitimate shot at a winning season in a decade. Players such as Rolen, who is 35 and knows what he knows, narrow their eyes.

"In 2004 I played on the best team I've ever played on'' in St. Louis, says Rolen. "We got swept (by Boston) in the World Series. Stars all over the field, and we got pounded. I told my wife after that, 'I'll never win a World Series.' That was the best team I'll ever play on.

"A couple years later, we back into the playoffs'' with 83 wins. "We were probably the worst team in the postseason that year. And we win the World Series in a walk'' over Detroit.

In baseball, you don't know nothin'.

You can make some smart guesses, though. When Walt Jocketty became Cincinnati's general manager three weeks into the '08 season, he inherited a team of mostly young players and a leaderless locker room. Jocketty's first words were about changing the "culture of the clubhouse.'' By Labor Day, he had traded Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn.

Last July, Jocketty got Rolen for two minor league pitchers and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion. Some of us wondered why a cash-poor team like the Reds would trade two good pitching prospects -- Josh Roenicke and Zach Stewart -- for an injury-prone 34-year-old who was making $11 million and could be a free agent after the season.

This was a trade a contender makes. Not the Reds, who have made a home in fourth place in the NL Central.

Jocketty had other notions. He'd been with Rolen in St. Louis and had a good relationship with Rolen's agent, Seth Levinson. He knew before the deal was made that Rolen wanted to play in Cincinnati, close to his Indiana roots and that he'd agree to a contract extension that included some deferred money.

Plus, Jocketty saw Rolen as a big culture guy. "We had some talented young players that needed direction,'' Jocketty said.

Reds owner Bob Castellini put a finer point on it. "We needed stabilization in the lineup and in the clubhouse,'' he said Tuesday. "Rolen is a stable, no-nonsense guy. He has proven to be exactly who we knew we needed.''

There are tangible reasons for the Reds' run: The starting pitching has been consistently strong -- nine quality starts in their last 10 games -- they've made the fewest errors in the National League, they've got five players with at least 18 RBIs, and two others with 16. They hit when it matters: Ten wins in their last at-bat.

There are other reasons, too, non-Saber reasons that have as much to with the Reds revival as RISP, OPS and WHIP. It's as simple as follow the leader.

Rolen just comes in and goes to work. Dunn and Griffey liked to lounge on the couch in the clubhouse before games, leafing through expensive-car catalogs and outdoors magazines. Sometimes, they'd be joined by the young and impressionable, including prize prospect Jay Bruce. This didn't escape management's attention.

The couch is still in the Reds' digs. Nobody uses it before games. "There's no entitlement in that clubhouse now,'' Castellini said.

"You see good professionals going about their business the right way, you can learn,'' said Rolen. "It translates onto the field, if you carry yourself well off the field.''

Rolen likes the Reds, but he knows the ledge they walk nightly. Young players expected to play big roles don't always handle the footlights well. "This isn't the Red Sox or the Yankees or the Cardinals,'' he said. "We need Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake. We need Jay Bruce. Everybody here is trying to get their feet wet, figure everything out and keep the highs and lows out of the equation.''

The Reds will need to learn to grind through the tough 162. It's a team on the cusp, and it can go either way.

"Are we playing good right now? Absolutely,'' Rolen said. "We won six or seven games in April, in our last at-bat, when we weren't playing that well. You can't work that hard for every single win for six months. Things have got to come a little easier. Then all the sudden, we start pitching lights out, we start getting timely hits. We start looking like a team that doesn't have a lot of holes.''

It has been a long time coming for Reds fans, who have watched the club stumble since its last winning season, in 2000. Fans remain skeptical. Crowds have averaged just over 20,000 since an Opening Day sellout. Almost 28,000 remained after Sunday's game, though, to witness something they hadn't seen in four years: After a win over St. Louis, the electronic standings pole towering above Great American Ball Park was changed. Cincinnati was in first place, half a game ahead of the Cardinals.