Those of us looking for progress from the Reds came through the first week of the season with mixed feelings. But it ended nicely, as if a momentary crisis were averted.
We hope the Reds can become a contender in some kind of low-riding wild card race, but the reality on the ground suggests a very long journey. In reality, the Reds are starting this year on the bottom, because they’re not clearly better than any other club in the league.
For the last several years the Reds have finished above the Pittsburgh Pirates, who don’t appear to be as desperately bad as the San Diego Padres or Washington Nationals. But the Reds still have to prove that when they go on the field with those teams.
It stands to reason that any club that can beat good clubs is even more likely to beat bad clubs. But the Reds can’t even beat bad clubs. For the last two years, they’re the only National League team with a losing record against under-.500 clubs in each year.
Last year, the Reds finished 23-24 against under-.500 clubs and 51-64 against over-.500 clubs. They were 6-9 against the Pirates. In the last two years, the Reds are 15-16 against the Pirates and 5-9 against the Nationals.
In 2007, the Reds were 30-43 against losing clubs and 42-47 against winning clubs. They actually were more effective against winning clubs.
The Pirates were 27-25 against losing clubs in 2008 and 39-35 against losing clubs in 2007. When the Pirates have a chance to win a game, they show up for it. The Reds, by contrast, have played with little crispness against losing clubs, and if they sometimes have picked up their game against winning clubs, it feels a bit like show.
The Reds made a bit more sense in 2006, finishing 53-48 against losing clubs and 27-34 against winning clubs. The Reds made a late bid for the playoffs in a weak NL Central that year, finishing 80-82 in their best season of this decade.
Before the Reds or anyone else can start talking about them as a contender, the Reds have to establish that they don’t belong in the NL’s low-rent district.
They’ll have to show it by beating on some of their neighbors and thereby moving up. That’s how clubs advance to the playoffs: Finish 20 games ahead of .500 against losing clubs, then break even against winning clubs. At the end of all that the club is right around 90 wins.
It figured that when the Pirates came to town last weekend, they would put a 10-1 drubbing on the Reds in their very first game. The Reds couldn’t touch Pirates starter Paul Maholm or hold fast in the bullpen.
The Reds had lost two of three at Great American Ball Park against the New York Mets, which wasn’t too surprising. But when they didn’t belong on the same field for nine innings with Pittsburgh, the specter of losing began to creep.
A day later, in the last of what turned out to be two games, the Reds again showed little inclination to hit, ending with only seven knocks. They scored two runs in the first on a homer by Brandon Phillips, then scored no more against Pirates starter Ian Snell or his bullpen. Knowing how the Reds tend to fare against the Pirates, the situation could have degenerated into a two-game sweep and a 1-4 home stand.
But the Reds played a card that’s been all too rare on the riverfront for years: Aaron Harang pitched an ace ball game, allowing only three hits in a complete game shutout. A game the Reds would have lost if it were up to their hitting turned into a win because of their pitching.
That Easter performance gave the Reds their first important lift of the season. Some wondered how Reds manager Dusty Baker could name Harang as his Opening Day starter after a 6-17 campaign last year, but no one doubts that he’s the one pitcher most likely to produce a stellar game of pitching when the club truly needs a win.
Mark down Harang as 1-0 when he pitches the day after the club has lost a game. Mark the Reds as 1-1 against losing clubs, since the Pirates can’t really hope to be anything else. And remember that the Reds aren’t going to belong with the contenders until they no longer belong with the pretenders.
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In 2003, Miami University couldn’t take a seat at the BCS table despite a high ranking and the quarterbacking of Ben Roethlisberger. The reason, of course, is because Miami is Miami (OH) and not Miami (FL), which is considered respectable company by the football front runners.
Later that school year, Miami couldn’t win an at large bid to the NCAA basketball tournament even though it deserved one ahead of other teams that made it. Again, something about being Miami.
So it came as quite a welcome surprise when Miami took its place as a national title contender in ice hockey, a sport without quite the same pecking orders. It also came as quite a disappointment, because Miami finished within a minute of winning that championship.
The RedHawks led Boston University 3-1 with a minute left in the NCAA Championship Game in Washington, D.C., on April 11. But BU scored with 59.5 seconds left and again with 17.4 seconds left, tying the game at 3-3. Almost 12 minutes into overtime, BU scored again for a miracle national championship.
For Miami, the night ended in a bitter disaster. The RedHawks advanced to an NCAA semifinal for the first time. They advanced to an NCAA championship game for the first time. But it’s hard to savor all that when the championship was won and it all went up in two goals worth of smoke with one minute left.
The RedHawks apparently weren’t ready to win a championship. Maybe next time they will be.
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