Red-hot Cincinnati rides little names to big results

On Baseball

July 04, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden has to be puffed up like a big toad right now. His team certainly looks bigger than life.

Bowden spent the winter wheeling and dealing and generally looking like a guy trying to escape from small-market purgatory. He apparently succeeded, if the club's recent winning streak is not some kind of optical illusion.

Everyone knew he was serious when he acquired slugger Greg Vaughn and former 20-game winner Denny Neagle in off-season trades, but the loss of Neagle to a lingering shoulder problem figured to undermine the team's chances of pulling an upset in the National League Central.

Not anymore.

The Reds have stumbled upon some surprising no-name players and mounted an amazing assault on the divisional power structure.

Their 10-game winning streak ended Friday but they still entered the weekend leading the division by percentage points, thanks to some big performances by little-known players like converted relief pitcher Ron Villone.

Villone, whose previous claim to fame was the who's-who list of players he has been traded for, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning on Wednesday night after taking one into the seventh inning in his previous start. He has given up just two singles in his past 15 innings of work.

The result on Wednesday was another uplifting victory, a 2-0 decision against the then-NL West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks that upstaged a 17-strikeout performance by Randy Johnson.

Johnson has to be wondering what he has to do to beat these irritating Central clubs. He struck out 14 in his previous outing and came up on the wrong end of St. Louis Cardinals youngster Jose Jimemez's unlikely no-hitter, but that's another story.

The Reds are the talk of the town. Right there in River City. Sean Casey has been the top hitter in the National League for most of the season, and Reds have gotten some kind of contribution from every corner of the roster.

Go figure.

The club does not have a dominating starting pitcher, though Villone has been pretty impressive over the past week or two, and does not have a premier closer, but that hasn't kept the Reds from being highly competitive -- even though they ranked 12th in the league in runs scored heading into the weekend.

The rotation features only one starter (Pete Harnisch) with more than five victories, and the bullpen is a collection of relatively unknown pitchers who have been amazingly effective. NL Rookie of the Year candidate Scott Williamson is 7-2 with 10 saves and a 1.50 ERA. Right-hander Danny Graves, the other half of the co-closer combination, is 5-3 with 10 saves.

Bowden insisted during the winter that the Reds would compete in the NL Central, even as veteran shortstop Barry Larkin seemed doubtful enough to indicate that he wanted to be traded to a contender.

Now, Larkin is having a strong season and wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

Except maybe on the road more. The Reds have gotten to the top of the standings largely on the strength of their terrific performance on the road, where they have the best record of any major-league team. The only club that is close is the Indians, which doesn't speak well for the summertime in Ohio.

The Reds are 26-10 away from Riverfront Stadium, but are below .500 at home, a dichotomy that has just about everyone in Cincinnati scratching his head.

Fans arrived at the opening game of the recent home series against the Diamondbacks with placards proclaiming "Welcome to Arizona" in an attempt to fool the Reds into playing better at home.

Well, you can afford to have a sense of humor when you're one of the hottest teams in baseball.

It worked. The Reds swept the series and knocked the Diamondbacks out of first place in the National League West.

Hotter still

The Reds may be red-hot, but they have to take a back seat to the sizzling San Diego Padres, whose 14-game winning streak that ended yesterday was the longest in baseball in five years.

Strike a blow for economic sanity.

The Padres downsized their club after going to the World Series last year, while the rival Dodgers were throwing around Rupert Murdoch's money like it was so much confetti.

The winning streak was built around a string of six victories over the floundering Dodgers, who have fallen hard into the NL West cellar.

Even more amazing

OK, so the Padres still are just a .500 team, and probably will end up worse than that. Their recent performance is even more impressive because they have weathered a series of injuries to key players, including future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, first baseman Wally Joyner and second baseman Quilvio Veras.

The Padres lineup reads less like a "who's who" than a "who are those guys?" Their success -- temporary as it may be -- is a testament to what can happen when you put people in a positive working environment.

Gonzalez taking short view

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