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Big Red Machine: Cincinnati is steamrolling toward the NLCS


SAN FRANCISCO -- The Reds staggered to the finish line of the regular season, at least as any kind of an offensive powerhouse. They hit .230 in September and no team in the National League scored fewer runs in the last month. But two games into the NLDS, look at them now: a team that looks like the hottest and most complete of the eight teams still standing. Cincinnati wiped out the Giants in their own park with spectacular defense, lockdown pitching and a lineup in which all eight starters are swinging hot bats.

"I don't think there's an explanation for it," centerfielder Drew Stubbs said of the turnaround. "This is what we really are, right here."

Now for Game 3 tomorrow they give the ball to Homer Bailey, a guy who has thrown 13 straight scoreless innings, including a no-hitter, with the best bullpen in baseball waiting behind him with plenty of rest. You don't think the city of Cincinnati will be ready for this game? The Reds franchise has not won a postseason series or a home playoff game in 17 years -- since Marge Schott was the owner.

Yes, we know playoff series can turn around in a hurry. But right now the Reds are playing airtight baseball and not even giving the Giants a breath in this series. The Giants' 9-0 thrashing in Game 2 was the worst shutout loss in franchise postseason history. San Francisco has been steamrolled in two games even though it hasn't played all that badly. The Reds have been that good.

You won't see many better starts this postseason than what Bronson Arroyo gave the Reds in Game 2. After entering the game with a postseason ERA of 6.04 and no wins in 11 postseason games, Arroyo threw the game of his life with a clinic of how to keep hitters off balance.

Arroyo allowed only one hit and one walk in seven shutout innings. But to really appreciate how he did it, absorb these superlatives for a moment:

• He threw 91 pitches, all but seven of them from the windup.

• He did not allow a runner to reach second base.

• He retired the first two batters of all seven innings.

• He threw pitches at 21 different speeds, including every increment starting at 71 mph and through 90 mph.

I haven't seen a pitcher tick off every increment in such a wide spectrum of velocity since Pedro Martinez.

Marco Scutaro of the Giants had it right when he said of Arroyo after the game, "He's the kind of guy when he's good he's pretty good, and when he's not he can get hit. He knows how to pitch."

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Arroyo brought his A game to the postseason.

First-year Cardinals manager Mike Matheny made a winning, aggressive move in the wild card game when he removed David Freese for a speedy pinch-runner, Adron Chambers. The move earned St. Louis a key run when Chambers' speed at third base influenced an error by Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons. But in Game 1 of the NLDS, Matheny turned passive and it cost the Cardinals a key defeat.

Matheny was four outs away from a 2-1 win when he elected to lift his best eighth-inning reliever, Mitchell Boggs, to face lefthanded pinch hitter Chad Tracy. Matheny had his closer, Jason Motte, warmed and ready. Motte is not your typical closer; Matheny used Motte for more than one inning 12 times during the regular season.

So who does Matheny bring in? Lefthander Mark Rzepczynski, not only because the manager was wedded to the matchup platoon formula that rules baseball, but also because he didn't want to take out Matt Holliday, Allen Craig or Yadier Molina in a double switch to forestall Motte having to take an at-bat. This was the game at this moment, but Matheny was managing for a tie game by not wanting to take out his three big hitters. Now that's passive.

Of course, Nationals manager Davey Johnson wound up with a matchup he liked with the game on the line: a righthanded batter (Tyler Moore) against a lefthanded reliever who has been shaky most of the year (Rzepczynski). Game over. Moore blooped in a two-run single to give Washington a 3-2 win.

So Matheny lost a game without using his best reliever when his team held a lead with four outs to go -- with that best reliever warmed and ready. If Motte gives up a hit to Tracy, you can live with it. But losing with Rzepczyenski pitching to a righthander while Motte watches from the bullpen mound . . . now that must hurt.

The Rangers and Braves lose the wild-card games. The Giants lose both NLDS games to the Reds. The Orioles lose to the Yankees. The Cardinals lose to the Nationals. Anybody detect a trend here? That's right: homefield advantage, which barely exists in the postseason (the home team wins 54 percent of the time), is non-existent this year thus far.

Detroit did manage to squeeze out two wins against Oakland. So the tally for home teams this postseason is 2-6. And no, there is no convenient one-size-fits-all reason for why this is so. Let's give it a bit more time.

The Giants offered Tim Lincecum $100 million over five years after last season. The righthander said no, thanks, and countered with a request large enough for San Francisco to see that negotiations for a long-term deal to buy out his free agency would be hopeless. So they settled on a two-year $40 million deal that will pay Lincecum $22 million next year. And after that? Is a $100 million deal still on the table from anybody?

After Lincecum led the league in losses (15) and posted a 5.18 ERA, the Giants told him before the NLDS that they had no spot for him in the postseason rotation. He could be an option for Game 4, he was told, but ranked behind Barry Zito in the preferred pecking order.

When Bochy was asked if that was a difficult conversation with Lincecum, he said, "No. He understood, but he also made it clear that he was ready to do anything we asked of him to help us win."

Give Lincecum credit. He accepted the demotion without complaint and then delivered two shutout innings in Game 2 that had the feel of the old Lincecum -- forkball diving, fastball humming and the San Francisco crowd feeding off swings and misses. "His stuff was electric," Scutaro said. It was good enough to give Bochy "options," as he put it, in regards to where the Giants go from here with Lincecum.

It was a brief bit of light in a dark year for Lincecum. But it was only two innings in a low leverage spot in which he didn't have to work through an entire order, let alone two or three times around a lineup. The Giants have been concerned that his stuff has been short and his confidence has been wrecked. Maybe the relief outing was the start of a turnaround, but it will take much more for Lincecum to restore his market value to where it was before this year began.