To borrow a phrase from the TV show What’s My Line, “Will the real Cincinnati Reds please stand up?”
There was a perfect definition of what this team is about over a three-game span last week at Cleveland and St. Louis. On one night they scored seven runs in the ninth inning to beat the Indians, 7-4. On the next night the Indians cold-cocked them, 19-4. Then in their next game against the St. Louis Cardinals, who had won nine of 10 against them this season, the Reds spanked them on both cheeks, 9-1.
Which game most represents the 2018 Reds or is it somewhere in between?
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Reds fan hope what they’ve seen for the last month - for the most part - are The Real Reds and not the team that began the season as bad as the 1962 New York Mets, losers of 120 games.
This season so far is a reminder of what former Reds manager Davey Johnson liked to say: “You are not as bad as it looks when you are in a losing streak and you are not as good as you look when you are in a winning streak. You are always somewhere in between and you just hope over the course of the season you win about 20 more than you lose.”
When the Reds lost 18 of their first 21, many baseball analysts were calling them the worst team in baseball, an abomination, a total wreck, and that was the best things they said about them.
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The attitude has changed since about June 10 when the Reds began winning games regularly. They are getting respect and some of those same analysts call them the hottest team in baseball, which of course, they are with 21 wins in their last 31 games.
Never was it more evident about what this team is all about than it was last Tuesday when they scored seven runs in the ninth inning to come from 4-0 behind to beat the first-place Indians.
Everybody knows the Reds began the season 3-15 and manager Bryan Price was escorted out the back door. Bench coach Jim Riggleman was named interim manager and lost his first three games in St. Louis and the Reds were 15 games under .500.
Then it got worse. On May 7 the Reds were 8-27, a season’s worst 19 games under .500.
Since then, the Reds are 34-26 and since June 10 they are 21-10, best record in the National League in that span.
So what has turned this so-called rebuilding team around, this team that was the laughingstock of the National League the first month of the season? What has turned this team to one of the league’s best the last two months and a team that scraps, scrapes and scratches to the final out every night?
Let’s start at the top with the most obvious difference — Riggleman. He is a man with a hockey bag full of managerial experience, having managed at San Diego, Seattle, Chicago (Cubs) and Washington.
And when the Cardinals fired manager Mike Matheny last Saturday night, one of the first names that surfaced as a possible replacement was Riggleman, who spent several years in the Cardinals organization.
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He is a man of principles. When he managed Washington in 2012 and was doing well with a so-so team, he wanted the team to pick up the option on his contract. When the Nationals refused, Riggleman walked away, resigned on the spot. On that day the Nationals had reached .500 for the first time in six years.
“I’m 58 and I’m too old to be disrespected,” he said.
Well, now he is 64, managing like he is 34, and has earned the respect of everybody in the baseball world for what he is doing with the Reds.
Riggleman has brought accountability to the clubhouse, something that was missing during Price’s last-place regime. Players were not held accountable for mental blunders or lack of effort. That has changed. Riggleman immediately addresses any and all mishaps and misplays.
Not many managers could employ a four-man outfield platoon and not only make it work but keep four players relatively happy with it.
Riggleman has shown a mastery at assembling batting orders and isn’t afraid to try different and out-of-the-box lineups.
He put power-hitting outfielder Scott Schebler in the leadoff spot and Schebler responded. He dropped Billy Hamilton from leadoff to ninth in the order, behind the pitcher, and Hamilton has steadily improved on what was an awful start when he was batting first. He batted catcher Tucker Barnhart second. He put diminutive second baseman Scooter Gennett in the clean-up spot and Gennett is putting together an even better season than he had last year, which was, by far, the best of his career.
He has more defined roles in the bullpen, turning what was the worst bullpen in baseball last year into one of the most dependable, from closer Raisel Iglesias to Jared Hughes to David Hernandez to Michael Lorenzen.
His strategies have been nearly impeccable with his choice of double switches and pinch hitters. How about sending up pitcher Michael Lorenzen to pinch hit and getting a grand slam?
When outfielders Adam Duvall and Jesse Winker don’t start, Riggleman eventually gets them into games as part of a double switch or as pinch hitters. Duvall leads the majors with the most RBIs of any player after the seventh inning. Winker is one of the game’s best pinch hitters, a difficult job for a young player.
And he always explains his thought processes.
In a game last week at St. Louis, the Reds led 5-1 in the seventh inning with two runners on base. He had Scott Schebler on deck to pinch hit. But when it was time for Schebler to walk to the batter’s box, Riggleman called him back and instead sent up Dilson Herrera.
Herrera promptly hit a three-run homer during an 11-pitch at bat to turn the game into a rout. When asked why he replaced Schebler with Herrera, Riggleman said, “With first base open I thought they might intentionally walk Schebler. I didn’t think they would walk Herrera. I didn’t want to waste Schebler.”
Other than an ever-changing pitching staff, Riggleman is doing it with the same players who began the season, other than pitcher Matt Harvey, obtained in an early-June trade with the New York Mets for catcher Devin Mesoraco.
Harvey arrived with heavy baggage, a regular in the Page Six column of the New York Post for his night life antics at New York. And he was a pain in management’s sides when he refused a demotion to the minors to work on things when he was struggling and when he spoke out loudly against being removed from the rotation and dropped into the bullpen.
It got him traded to Cincinnati, where he has provided a much-needed veteran presence and leadership. He has won his last four starts with a 1.89 ERA and stabilized an inconsistent rotation.
He has been a model citizen with a quiet go-about-my-business attitude. He refuses to talk about his past or his future (he can be a free agent after the season), but says, “The guys in this clubhouse are great and have been great to me, really accepted me and I love them all. I’m having fun here and I’m happy to be able to help this team win.”
Offensively, the team has become a hit machine, near the top of the league in all categories. And this is despite Joey Votto having a down year, which would be a career year for a lot of major leaguers.
He still gets on base more than most, but his average, home runs and run production are all down, plus his defense has been leaky and his base running sub par.
What slack he has left has been taken up by third baseman Eugenio Suarez, who has led the league in RBIs for the last couple of months, now with 71, and Gennett, who continues to amaze, leading the league in batting average at .326 while providing power (16 homers) and RBIs (63).
While his offense has slackened, Barnhart continues to be a Gold Glove catcher and shortstop Jose Peraza, who started the season 1 for 16, has been steady ever since at the plate, raising his average to .293 with 11 hits at St. Louis — a club record for a three-game series — and his defensive play is above average and ever-improving.
Riggleman’s first message to the team when he took over was, “Let’s do some scoreboard watching. Let’s get out of fifth place, let’s catch the team ahead of us. You can’t get to third unless you get out of fifth and into fourth.”
The Reds have been chasing the fourth-place Pittsburgh Pirates and not long ago got within 1.5 games. But while the Reds continued to win, the Pirates got hot and the Reds haven’t caught them. The Reds enter the All-Star break 4.5 games behind the Pirates and six games behind the third-place Cardinals.
If the Reds could erase April and the first week of May or go back and play them over, the fans probably would have what they want: A team right in the wild card mix.
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