As the newspapers landed on dewy lawns on May 1st, the Reds looked halfway decent to their hometown faithful. They stood one game under .500 at 12-13, only four games out, and even across the board with 109 runs scored, and 109 runs allowed. By the standards of the high-powered Cincinnati offense, this run tally was a little slow out of the gate, as was common across the still-chilly landscape of this year's first month. But by the standards of the hapless Cincinnati pitching staff, this was a breakthrough!
One could not look at the pitching form without seeing visions of flowers, butterflies, chirping birds and singing crickets, all signs of Spring and rebirth. (Or maybe this was just the chili backing up and causing hallucinations).
Aaron Harang, staff ace and part-time sculptor of facial hair, was rollicking along with a 4-0 record and a league-leading 36 strikeouts.
#2 starter Bronson Arroyo had a sparkling 2.86 ERA with a 1.13 WHIP, despite having no wins to show for it.
Matt Belisle had opened his first full season as a starter with a very promising 3 wins, and a 3.45 ERA with 1.05 WHIP.
Kyle Lohse, the reclamation project salvaged from the Minnesota roster at last year's trading deadline, was pitching out of his mind with his best full month of baseball in two years – a 2.88 ERA with 26 Ks, including an 8-inning, 12-strikeout gem against the Cubs.
Granted, the unmentionable Eric Milton was wallowing in winlessness, but his usual struggles could be artfully ignored in light of the overall rosiness of the rest of the rotation, and the genial effectiveness of David Weathers, entering his third year as interim closer. Weathers saved five of his team's first twelve wins, giving up only two ninth-inning leads in the process, a success rate that has been rarely paralleled by Cincinnati firemen of the last decade or so.
And at this point, you the reader can fully expect that we must pull the rug out from under this poor unfortunate fairy tale, with the decisiveness of a master magician. However, you would be underestimating the slow, torturous cruelty of the dismembering of the Red fans' hopes in this month of May, a May in which the Reds won only 9 games against 21 losses, plunging the team into the very bottom of the National League.
It started, ironically enough, with a decisive 11-2 win at Houston, Arroyo's first win of the season. Then the pitching gave up three runs in a loss, then seven in another loss, then six in an extra-inning defeat starting a home-stand, then nine in the losing end of a slugfest. Arroyo's turn came up again in a 9-3 win, stopping the streak but not the bleeding.
Cincy then dropped three of four to Houston at home, then five of six on a West Coast campaign, followed by yet another series loss to the first-place Cleveland Indians to mark the opening of interleague play.
The Reds staggered home after this difficult 10-day cross-country trip, looking to regroup against the Washington Nationals. Reds fans looked forward to this matchup for two reasons – one, they were perhaps the only team in the NL worse off than they; and two, at last year's trading deadline the Nationals had somehow fleeced the Reds out of two promising offensive players under the age of 27, in return for an aged and injured relief pitcher (Gary Majewski), a young hurler only a few weeks out of the minor leagues (Bill Bray), and two months of Royce Clayton as their starting shortstop. Already a horrible trade in value, this was doubly insulting for coming amidst the throes of a pennant chase with the wounded St. Louis Cardinals as vulnerable as they had been in three years.
With fire in their bellies and revenge on their minds, Cincinnati Reds fans took to the stands and watched in horror as the hated Nationals scored a staggering 31 runs in four games. Shock turned to stupor as the visiting Pirates piled on with 33 more runs in the next three games.
Fittingly, May 31st closed with a 10-2 loss to Houston, a nearly perfect bookend to the hellish month's optimistic start.
Consider this – the Cardinals began May in last place, buried a fallen teammate, suffered a daily barrage of increasingly uncomfortable media reports, lost their catcher, shortstop and third baseman to various injuries, demoted a starting pitcher in favor of a waiver-wire castoff who had never started at the major league level, and won only 12 games… and in doing so, our team gained 4 ½ games in the standings on the Reds.
A Hero Named Homer
In Cincinnati now, there is no talk of repeating the forced excitement of last year's race to 82 wins and a probably pennant. There is very little spirit left to appreciate Ken Griffey's resurgence up the career home run charts, and with 575 and counting, the probability that he may reach 600 career home runs before the season is out. There is little positivity left but one hope: that the ever-burning hellfire that Cincinnati calls a pitching staff may be finally put out by a young man named Homer Bailey.
Homer Bailey is only referred to as "Homer Bailey" by the Cincinnati faithful, out of reverence to his legend yet-to-be-written. Homer Bailey's arrival will be celebrated with weeping and song. Homer Bailey's birthday, May 3rd, will become a city-wide holiday. Homer Bailey will lead this team out of the darkness.
Such are the hopes that, with few reservations, have been placed on the shoulders of a young man only three years removed from high school, who may be only days away from his first major league call-up.
Standing at 6'4" and 205 pounds, with high heat and a reportedly devastating curveball, this pitcher has dominated every level of pitching he has been exposed to.
In his senior year of high school, Homer Bailey recorded a 15-0 record with a 0.68 ERA and 201 strikeouts in just under 92 innings. He lost only four games in his high school career.
Those are video game numbers, simply impossible to retain against professional hitters. However, after arriving in the pros in '05, and making his way to AA last year, Homer Bailey has still struck out more than a man per inning. In his first exposure to AAA hitters, Homer Bailey sports a 6-1 record and is holding opposing batters to a stingy .191 average.
The only trouble for Homer Bailey is the history of another young pitcher with high heat and a devastating curve, another young pitcher whose first and last names could not be separated in conversation for fear of disrespecting his eventual rise into the baseball pantheon, another young pitcher whose arrival was supposed to light the way for his team out of the darkness.
That young man's name is "Kerry Wood," and the very mention of it now shrieks in the eardrums of Cincinnati GM Wayne Krivsky with the fury of a thousand harpies.
Buzz Bissinger, author of Three Nights in August, recently penned a brilliant article in the New York Times titled "My Right Arm" that covers the phenomenon of Kerry Wood as a two-word nightmare scenario for baseball general managers. It makes for good copy for the paper, but it won't be news to Wayne Krivsky.
Krivsky knows that his early golden boy reputation, garnered with the acquisition of Bronson Arroyo and Brandon Phillips for pennies on the dollar in his first months with the team, is now severely tarnished. He has done little to make the team stronger, and his bungling attempts to strengthen his bullpen may have severely weakened it. Krivsky also knows that if he rushes Homer Bailey, if Homer Bailey becomes the next talent extinguished by the stress and abuse of overwork at the major league level at a tender young age, then his time at the helm in Cincinnati may be done.
Krivsky holds this tender hope in his hands, in an imagined scene already portrayed by Ron Perlman's caveman in the movie The Quest for Fire. He must protect and nurture the flame for the sake of his own life and that of his tribe. He must keep it close, but also knows that the fire, like hope, can spread too fast, and can consume them all, ultimately extinguishing itself.
For Krivsky and Reds' fans alike, this 2007 season is quickly boiling down to this essential problem – only Homer Bailey can save us, but the loss of Homer Bailey could ruin us. What will they do?