August arrives to find the Reds not merely in the playoff hunt but leading the wildcard race as the week began, which means they are the hunted. Adding to their good fortune, the ball clubs doing the hunting aren't very good at it.
As dedicated professionals, the Reds will tell you they're after larger game than the wildcard, since they played through Sunday only 3 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the Central Division. We'll reassess their chances on that front when the Cardinals leave town after four games next week.
It remains that the Reds would be in the playoffs as the wildcard club if the season ended Aug. 1, and the race is not so torrid as the compression of contenders would claim. Nine other NL clubs stalk the Reds from within 6 1/2 games, which could conceivably be made up in a week. But only one, the Arizona Diamondbacks, has won more games than it's lost.
No front office wants to win a playoff berth more than the Reds front office. One does a double take as those words fly off the keyboard, but it's pretty hard to miss right now.
The Reds made two more trades to beef up their pitching staff at the July 31 trading deadline, bringing in veteran righthander Kyle Lohse from the Minnesota Twins and veteran lefthander Rheal Cormier from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for two good pitching prospects, righthanders Zack Ward and Justin Germano.
Unlike the blockbuster with Washington, which sought improvement by shifting the Reds' emphasis from hitting to pitching, the two deadline deals unmistakably bear the "win now" stamp because the loss of two thriving minor league pitchers is a risk against the future.
But the Reds can make deals for immediacy because the Washington deal so strengthened their bullpen that they've created a chance for themselves. With that chance, the Reds must go for it right away or they'll blow their larger chance to convert a mistrustful public.
Whether Reds fans respond to the club's new dedication and general manager Wayne Krivsky's trade virtuosity is a wide open question. Not only have the Bengals begun training camp, but Cincinnati fans are slow to catch on when the Reds prosper, in part because the front office has pulled the rug from under them so many times. Through July, the Reds averaged 26,325 fans per home game, 23rd of 30 clubs. Eight National League clubs with losing records drew better.
But unlike the last Reds regime that said it was trying, the new regime really is. In 25 days ending July 31, Krivsky improved the bullpen from the worst to one of the best.
Among the differences between the new regime and the old when it comes to regaining public confidence is the new regime's preference for its own professional judgment over knee-jerk fan response. Krivsky and owner Bob Castellini were willing to upset fans in the short term because they're confident and competent enough to prevail in the long run. Think back to the eight-player blockbuster with Washington; try to remember the outrage it provoked in some corners, and one can't miss the point.
A good number of Reds fans eventually will comprehend that Krivsky understands putting a baseball club together better than they do. More important, Krivsky understands that, which constitutes a refreshing change after last year's regime displayed so little backbone against public opinion. By this time a year ago Reds management couldn't offer up blood sacrifices fast enough to satisfy their angry constituents.
Two weeks following the Washington trade, its most impressive feature isn't the boldness of trying to win now so much as Krivsky's boldness for sticking his head into the lion's mouth. Oddly enough, one didn't turn over many rocks before finding fans who lamented the general shift from power hitting to pitching and defense Krivsky is trying to manifest in the Reds.
Cincinnati fans who watched their favorites ride the NL's most powerful batting order to the club's worst five-year run in the past 50 years couldn't contain their fury that the Reds should try winning by more time-honored and fundamentally sound methods. More happiness would have ensued had Krivsky simply traded Felipe Lopez straight up for Bill Bray. The remaining pieces — Royce Clayton, Gary Majewski, Brendan Harris and Daryl Thompson for Austin Kearns — still seem lopsided against the Reds.
However, the trade's effect on the Reds does not. From the All-Star break through July 31, Reds relievers notched an ERA of 3.50 with seven saves in eight opportunities, compared with a 5.16 ERA and saves in 19 of 32 chances before the break. With relief pitchers who protect leads, the Reds suddenly are a much more reliable club.
Cormier joins Bray and Everyday Eddie Guardado as acquisitions who give the Reds a relieving lefthander for every occasion. Since coming to the Reds on July 6, Guardado is a solid closer, six-for-six in save opportunities. Bray can work in a set-up role, and the aging Cormier with his 1.59 ERA can dispose of one or two lefthanded hitters in the middle innings. Considering the Reds signed Cormier for next year to complete the deal, the price is right.
The Reds are taking a flier on Lohse, whose performances have never matched his stuff. The righthander is even less effective this year, putting up a 7.07 ERA. Krivsky might have done his former club a favor, allowing the Twins to unload a problem while picking up Ward and his 7-0, 2.29 ERA performance in Dayton. Presumably, Krivsky has insight about how to use Lohse.
But Krivsky also is doing the Reds and their fans a huge favor. Naturally, he expects payback, like a playoff appearance and, someday, ticket sales from the public. Whether or not Reds fans like the way they win, they'll like winning, so long as the Reds do it for long enough, starting yesterday.