The Cincinnati Reds, who have had the experts in wild confusion for months, went out to Los Angeles last weekend and drove the Dodgers practically out of their minds. Nearly everyone expected them to collapse at last in the face of Dodger might; instead, like a band of little Davids, they murdered Goliath in three out of four games. They start the second half of the season, after the All-Star break, five games in front, and are clearly the team to beat for the National League pennant.
This is a club that was supposed to finish sixth, and on April 30 the Reds were indeed in last place. Exactly a month later they were in first; in and out for a few weeks, they have now held the lead since June 16. And yet, only a few days before the trip to Los Angeles, there was still a great deal of doubt about their ability to stick. In Chicago, Redleg pitchers put on a horrible performance. They gave the weak Cubs 54 hits, including 13 homers, and 46 runs in four games, of which they lost three. (Said the experts: Just as we predicted, the Reds will get their hits—they had 43 and 25 runs against the Cubs—but their pitching simply can't hold up.)
Then the Reds went to Milwaukee, and there they really found themselves. It was the result of a typical baseball brawl. After splitting the first two games with the Braves, the Reds fell behind in the third game 5-2. In the Cincinnati half of the fourth, Pitcher Jim O'Toole singled and tried to come home on Eddie Kasko's double. Between third and home O'Toole slipped and fell; scrambling back, he tried to knock the ball from the hands of the Braves' Eddie Mathews. Mathews held the ball just long enough to record the putout, then threw it away and started for O'Toole. Out came both benches.
Somehow, in that trite baseball scene, the Reds recaptured a special spark they have yet to lose. Pitcher O'Toole, who had given up three homers and five runs in the three innings, retired the next six Braves to face him. After he left for a pinch hitter, Sherman Jones pitched four scoreless innings. Then Jim Brosnan pitched four more, and the Reds, who had tied the score at 5 all, won in the 13th on a homer by Gordon Coleman. From that point on they beat the top contenders—Pirates, Giants and Dodgers—in seven of eight games.
Cincinnati's best hitters during the drive were Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson and Coleman. Robinson and Pinson are the club's best at almost any time, but Coleman has been a real surprise. A big, friendly youngster, whose jaw almost comes unhinged when he chews gum, he batted .425 during the Cincinnati streak and raised his average to over .300, his runs batted in to 53. Coleman, a lefty himself, is unusually weak against left-handed pitching; he always has been and accepts the fact almost cheerfully. He estimates his 1961 batting average against left-handers is under .200, which makes him a terror against right-handers.
Redleg pitching, since the Cub nightmare, has been steady, reliable, rarely brilliant but rarely awful. Veteran Bob Purkey, a convert to the knuckle ball, won two games during the streak. So did Joey Jay, the long-time starlet whom the Reds acquired from Milwaukee. Brosnan, one of the league's best long-relief men, and Bill Henry, one of the best short men, helped save four of the eight decisions. Sherman Jones, a hulking Giant discard, pitched commendably as both starter and reliever.
When the Redlegs got to Los Angeles, the series-opening double-header with the Dodgers drew 68,742, a National League record for a night game. Cincinnati won one game on sheer power, the other on good pitching. Ken Hunt, who has been the league's outstanding rookie, started the opener and was unbelievably bad. Fourteen of the first 15 pitches he threw were balls. He then gave up a three-run double, threw a wild pitch and hit a man. Yet Manager Fred Hutchinson, typically patient, kept him in for six innings.
Hunt did much better as a batter. Although he had made only three hits all season and had struck out the first 10 times, he picked on Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers' top pitcher, for a single and a double and three runs batted in. Down 3-0 at the outset, the Reds bunched eight runs in three innings and won 11-7. Purkey, Cincinnati's top winner with 11 victories, stopped the Dodgers in the second game 4-1 on eight hits. The huge crowd filed silently out of the Coliseum well after midnight.
On Saturday night the winning streak was stopped. The Dodgers climbed all over big Jim Maloney and his relief, Jay Hook, and took an easy 10-1 decision. Later, Hutchinson just shook his head and halfheartedly agreed that losing big was perhaps the best way to end a winning streak.
It was in the final game that at least one Dodger lost his head, and the others were surely scratching theirs at Cincinnati's confidence and resiliency. Frank Robinson hit a home run in the first inning. In the sixth Pitcher Don Drysdale, who leads the league in hitting batters (15), knocked Robinson down with a close pitch. He was warned by Umpire Dusty Boggess, and fined $50. He knocked Robinson down again with the next pitch, and hit him on the arm with a third, at which point Boggess finally threw Drysdale out of the game. To complete the Dodgers' discomfort, Robinson hit another homer in the eighth, had seven runs batted in, and the Reds won 14-3.
Despite their fast pace, the Reds are, of course, a long way from a pennant. They still rely chiefly on young pitchers, and their catching is entirely in the hands of two rookies. Their hitting, always good, may be at its peak right now: Robinson and Pinson, to be sure, are .300 hitters—but is Gordon Coleman? Can Eddie Kasko continue to hit around .300? Will Gene Freese keep driving in the key runs?
If you ask Fred Hutchinson, he will shrug his shoulders and say, quite honestly, that he doesn't know. But last weekend, asked to compare the Reds of today with the team at the start of the season, he gave what looks like the most reasoned answer possible. "We realize now that this is a good, sound ball club," Hutchinson said. "We've begun to believe we can do the job."