One for the History Books: Cardinals at Reds

The invading St. Louis Cardinals just missed Ken Griffey, Jr.'s 600th homer. Will it be his swan song in Cincinnati?

This St. Louis Cardinals team has had a year relatively blessed by an absence of bad news, and in that, it has been markedly different from 2007. The worst scare they've faced was hokum about Albert Pujols' elbow, a would-be campfire spook story that could cast no shadow among a clubhouse that sees him in batting practice every day.

That was, until now, as Adam Wainwright's suddenly bothersome finger has pulled him to the DL. Todd Wellemeyer's barking elbow and Rick Ankiel's continued absence from the lineup are but minor brush fires compared to the worst case being bandied about regarding the Cardinals' presumptive ace: possible tendon surgery and a four-month recovery. Cards fans with their prayer sticks are collectively hoping that two weeks of rest and Wainwright's trademark tenacity will bring him back to form much sooner than that.

The good news is that the Cards have now won or tied seven consecutive series, and are displaying the characteristic resolve and consistency of Tony La Russa's best teams. This run of success has slammed the brakes on a listless skid in early May that saw the team take short tumble down the standings, rather than a long fall.

The other good news for this Redbird team is that whenever they have faced a roster challenge so far this year, they have been able to summon able replacements. Ryan Franklin stepped in for Jason Isringhausen and has closed eight of nine opportunities, often impressively so. Meanwhile, Memphis' Chris Perez has filled the eighth inning void left by Franklin's departure, keeping penmates McClellan, Flores, Springer and Villone from becoming overexposed in the crucial setup role. Joe Mather and Brendan Ryan have also lent a helping hand when needed.

On Tuesday, it will be Mitchell Boggs' turn to play fireman, taking Wellemeyer's usual turn. The Colonel will test his tender elbow with a bullpen session that afternoon, but with more able-bodied reservists in the wings – including Anthony Reyes, Kyle McClellan, and the rehabbing Joel Pineiro – Wellemeyer is likely to be able to give his arm a little beauty rest and plenty of IcyHot.

Boggs will be facing one of Cincinnati's three highly touted young arms, Homer Bailey. In fact, before this season, he was the highly touted young arm in the Reds' system, widely considered to be the team's Next Big Thing, whose arrival in Cincinnati would be celebrated with weeping and song, as we chronicled before his major league debut last year. However, Bailey's underwhelming major league debut and struggle to establish himself in Spring Training has seen him slip to third on the "hot shot Reds pitchers" list, and to fifth or lower on the overall list of "exciting young Reds players."

It isn't so much a bad time to be Homer Bailey as it is a good time to be a Reds fan. For the last six years, this team's public identity has largely been defined by the plodding-but-powerful Adam Dunn, and the slow decline of Griffey from superstar to historical artifact.

Now, however, the baseball world is taking a new reckoning of the Reds, thanks to a twin bill of talent headlining in the river city: Edinson Volquez and Jay Bruce (right).

Both have had phenomenal debuts this season. If the BBWAA could be persuaded to award the Cy Young Award in June, Volquez would win it hands down* with his ERA under two and league-leading strikeout rate. Meanwhile Bruce's midseason call-up has had a Roy Hobbsian effect on his teammates: his arrival kicked off five wins in six games, one of which he won himself with a walk-off homer on the same day that his boyhood idol Griffey hit #599.

(*With apologies to Brandon Webb and his league-leading 11 wins.)

After this pair is an equally tantalizing undercard: first baseman Joey Votto and pitcher Johnny Cueto, who both have the tools to build very formidable major league careers. Bailey is then in the mix with some established young players like Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion on the "hot list."

While it's still true that these Reds are once again in last place in the NL Central, they are a far more dangerous team than the one who found itself 15 games under .500 at this point last season. Popularity may have a short-term effect of putting butts in seats, but the deeper effect of this roster turnover is that these talented young players are pushing aside some of the usual stumblebums that have contributed to the decline of Reds teams past.

Corey Patterson, who has long gotten the "coach's son" treatment from Dusty Baker despite a lack of real baseball skill, is now in the minors. Inveterate meatball slingers such as Eric Milton and Josh Fogg have been banished. Likeable schlub David Weathers, more of a survivor as closer than a dominator, has been retired to middle relief.

However, this is a team whose short term fate may be decided in July, not in September. Dunn and Griffey are both playing out the final year of their respective contracts, and it's possible that neither will be in the team's plans for the future. They have one of the master deadline dealers in the game in Walt Jocketty, though it has admittedly been a long time since Jock has been in the seller's position regarding big-name talent. Both players could be tantalizing acquisitions for potential playoff contenders, and help jumpstart the Reds' restocking process.

It's never easy for a fan base for a team to trade away an iconic player. However, with all the excitement currently surrounding the Reds' youngsters this season, Cincinnati fans might not even notice.

 

 

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