What A Difference A Year Makes

Perhaps no team has benefited more from St. Louis' ongoing charity drive that we call the 2006 baseball season than the Cincinnati Reds, who finished last season 27 games behind the Cardinals, but come to town this week a mere game and a half removed from our division-leading berth.

One year ago today, these Reds were nine games under statistically defined mediocrity, .500, the new poverty line in this wildcard-diluted brand of baseball that we play. When these charity cases came to call upon the mighty Cardinals, we frowned and sniffed our upturned noses at their pathetic desperation, and then, just as fictional multibillionaire C. Montgomery Burns would do, released the hounds and chased them out of our yard.

Last year we were visited by these unfortunates from the Queen City at season's end, and they were brash enough to bash 17 runs out of our gentlemanly pitching staff in those three games. However, those were different times. Our team knew no magnanimity, no mercy for the downtrodden. Having received this slap in the face, we had no choice but to thrash them thoroughly for our 98th, 99th, and 100th victories by brutal, offensive scores of 12-6, 9-6, and 7-5. These were not poetic games, not fit for the well-heeled gentlemen and ladies in the box seats to watch, but they capped a convincing series against these rabble at 11 wins, five against, similar in result and in spirit to the cuffing we delivered in the regular season to Houston (11 and five), Milwaukee (likewise) and Pittsburgh (12 and four).

By all rights, that should have been the end of it. They should have known their place. But this game that we watch, this game that they play, continues on year after year, and like weeds in my lawn, these teams that we so thoroughly dispatched last summer must come back to torment us again. And where we have been inflexible in the discipline we wreaked upon our lesser fellows of the National League Central these most recent years, this year we have been too kind, too forgiving. And what has our generosity sown, but a new challenger to our throne?

It serves us right, I daresay.

The case for giving

This spirit of generosity, our willingness to forgo many well-deserved victories to create a closer race for the crown of the Central, has been called "good for the game" by no less than our esteemed manager, Tony La Russa, as quoted to Mr. David Briggs of MLB.com.

"The more teams in contention, the more fans are staying with the game instead of going to college or pro football," says our elder man wearing the #10 uniform. And while his compassion for stray animals is widely reported, it is rare for this hard-driving man to be at all concerned with the greater good of the teams in his rear-view mirror.

However, I beg to differ with his conclusion. Fans in Cincinnati, home of the oldest professional team in baseball, know what a good team – nay, a great team – is supposed to look like, having watched Pete Rose and the Big Red Machine dominate baseball for the better part of a decade. For that matter, they know what an exciting division race is supposed to feel like, with a crackle of intensity on both sides of the diamond and throughout the ballparks as the air grows crisp and dry with the cool of fall. And while they may have little in the way of recent memory of these types of events, this game of baseball, of fathers and sons, is so rich with stories and memories that these feelings are not soon forgotten. Perhaps this is why this Reds team, while successful in its overall slow re-growth of its fan attendance, has not experienced a rush to the ticket office commensurate with its rush up the standings.

Fans in Cincinnati are also relative newcomers to the chief competitor that La Russa identifies, professional football. (They, like fans of the football Cardinals, have suffered through many, many years of unprofessional attempts to play the sport.) As a result, this story, this event: a sparkling matchup of two high-powered division rivals, late in the baseball season with first place on the line, finds itself hard-pressed to take the local spotlight away from the exploits of the football Bengals and their preseason exhibitions.

The fault lies not in the story, but in its protagonists, who can only claim 11 wins over the mean between them. Would the Kentucky Derby receive the same attention if it were donkeys running the race? But nevertheless, we must watch these asses, and root for ours over theirs, because to do otherwise would be shameful. And, in Albert Pujols, we are at least guaranteed of having at least one true thoroughbred on the field.

2006 series history: Cards vs Reds

April 14-16:

Cards drop the first game 1-0, a beautiful game that, in hindsight, looks totally uncharacteristic of either team. Aaron Harang and Chris Carpenter, respective aces of our teams, allowed only five baserunners apiece in this duel, Harang himself driving in the only run. They return for a rematch in game one of this series. Cardinals took games two and three by scores of 9-3 and 8-7. Albert Pujols hit three home runs in the series' memorable conclusion to singlehandedly prevent the Reds from moving ahead of us in the standings. This performance, thrilling from our point of view (and for Mark Mulder, who was taken off the hook for the loss) laid bare a known weakness for the Reds – a lack of effective pitching, especially in relief – that would dog the team all season. Both teams finish with seven wins, five losses in the early-season scrum.

May 1-2:

Tied for first with the Reds, and a half game up on the Astros, the Cardinals travel to the Great American Ballpark and drop both games of this short series, and then two more in Houston's "juice box," sounding an early warning note that this Cardinal team was not as fiercely competitive against our division rivals as in years past. Mulder had his second consecutive poor start against the Reds, giving up six runs in five-plus innings, and the Reds bullpen gives a rare strong performance, shutting down our bats to preserve a 2-2 tie in the second game, leading to an eventual 3- 2 win in the ninth.

June 5-7:

Cincinnati sweeps three games in Busch III against the weakened Cardinals, who had just lost Albert Pujols to the disabled list for the first time in his career, and pulls even with the Cardinals yet again at the top of the standings. Ken Griffey hits two home runs in the series opener, the second off Isringhausen with two on, to give the Reds the 8-7 win. This was the opening of a difficult month of June for Hoss, and also Griffey's high point on the season before entering into a slow decline in production. The Hall of Famer has been healthy, but his bat may be showing age where his still boyish face does not – Griffey turns 37 shortly after the seasons' end. Lefty Eric Milton, who has a 2.76 ERA (0.69 this year) against St. Louis in his career, and an ERA above 5.00 against the rest of the league, beats Chris Carpenter 7-0 in game two, and Harang bests Ponson 7- 4 in the capper.

August 7-10:

The Cardinals begin and end the series in Cincinnati with a three-and-a-half game lead in the standings, bookending two wins from Jeff Weaver and Anthony Reyes around two losses from Jason Marquis and Chris Carpenter to split the series. The Reds' ticket office launches a promotion to pack the ballpark with fans, offering half-price tickets and $1 hotdogs. The big crowd of more than 34,000 is poorly rewarded in the series' first game, a 13-1 Cardinal drubbing, but comes back to pack the stadium again, bringing an average of 40,000 fans to the final three games. Our #1 and #2 pitchers, Carpenter and Mulder, are now a combined 0-3 with a 6.67 ERA against our Queen City rivals this year.

What to Expect

Cincinnati has the best record against its own division (33-26) of any team in the Central, and a strong enough road record (30-26) to suggest that this team will be arriving with plenty of confidence and ability to win. Reds GM Wayne Krivsky has made several in-season trades to rebuild the bullpen – most shockingly, trading young slugging outfielder Austin Kearns and young slugging shortstop Felipe Lopez to Washington for two middle relievers and Royce Clayton. However, the ‘pen remains a weakness, as new closer "Everyday" Eddie Guardado was presented with three save opportunities this past weekend against the Phillies, and could preserve only one. And the offense, though slightly diminished by these moves, still remains powerful with Griffey, giant lefty Adam Dunn and rookie third baseman Edwin Encarnacion its anchors.

Contact: horton@stlouisgametime.com


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