HOUSTON — The first week of a baseball season generally tells us little, but it counts. And it says what it says loud and clear.
You wondered how the Reds would look without Barry Larkin at shortstop? On April 8, you saw Roger Clemens drive in two runs against them on a play Larkin would have made.
You wondered how the Chicago Cubs would solve their bullpen woes? That same day, at their home opener, the Cubs blew a ninth-inning lead and then went on to lose in 12 innings.
You wondered if the Cardinals would win 105 games again? Well, they still have a chance, but they batted only .229 the first week of the season while their opponents batted .346.
You wondered if the Pittsburgh Pirates or Milwaukee Brewers could come up from the bottom of the NL Central? It's not looking good for the Pirates, who hit only one homer and had a staff ERA of 5.69 through the first week of the season.
The Brewers have been about even with the Reds offensively, but their pitching staff has been one of the NL's best.
You wondered if the Houston Astros could stay competitive minus Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent? You saw what Willy Taveras and Jason Lane did against the Reds last weekend.
A year ago, the easy forecast for the NL Central cut the division in two, with the Cardinals, Astros and Cubs contending while the Reds, Brewers and Pirates fought for a miniature title among themselves. And it played out that way.
The Reds won that sub-Central competition and made moves in the offseason for promotion to contending status. Their first test in the NL Central last weekend in Houston didn't go well. But we'll have a much better read on May 1, by which time the Reds will have played 18 games against all the clubs in their division.
Anyway, it's almost unfair to judge the Reds on how they fare against the Astros, who've placed the local nine under a spell. With three wins against the Reds last weekend, the Astros have beaten them 11 straight times, plus 10 straight times in 2003.
Last weekend's games saw the Astros winning by means that aren't available to the Reds, with foot speed. On April 8, the Reds and Astros were tied 1-1 with Clemens batting and two out in the sixth inning. After Reds rookie Matt Belisle went up 0-2 against Clemens, he threw three balls. Then Clemens hit a bouncer to the left side of second base.
Reds shortstop Rich Aurilia made it to the ball but lost it before he could make a throw. Meanwhile, a run scored from third and Taveras, Beltran's replacement in center field for Houston, came all the way around to give the Astros a 3-1 lead. Houston ended up winning 3-2.
The next night, Taveras led off a tie game in the bottom of the ninth with an infield single, then scored the game winner easily from first base on pinch hitter Jose Vizcaino's double to right. The series ended the next day with Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Morgan Ensberg homering against Reds starter Eric Milton in a 5-2 Houston win.
We already know this about the Reds, as if there were any doubt: They'll live and die by the home run. In their first six games, 17 home runs were hit — seven by the Reds and 10 by the opposition. No other club in the division was even close on either side.
The frequency of opposition homers isn't quite what the Reds brass means by "pitching to contact." But if the Reds are going to pitch to contact, they need to go all the way and cut down on walks — 20 in their first six games. In and of itself, that's not a terrible number. It only becomes a terrible number when the walks are followed by so many home runs.
The Reds might also throw a little "hitting to contact" into their approach. Reds hitters whiffed 56 times through Sunday, by far the most strikeouts in the big leagues. Of course, they've already faced Pedro Martinez, Clemens and Roy Oswalt, who finished sixth, seventh and eighth in major league strikeouts last year.
Considering those three twirled at the Reds in half their games through April 10, it shouldn't be surprising that the Reds were a little deflated all around the offensive categories. Oswalt actually helped the Reds a little on April 10, walking five and striking out only two. But that didn't stop him from improving to 12-0 in 16 career appearances against the Reds.
On the pitching side, the Reds can take some encouragement from the first week. On Opening Day, their $4 million pitcher, Paul Wilson, went out-for-out with Martinez, the Mets' $13 million pitcher. On April 8, Ramon Ortiz, a $3.5 million pitcher for the Reds, stayed right with Clemens, who's making $18 million, for five innings.
But injuries limited Ortiz' spring training and he left early, having already thrown 81 pitchers. When he rounds into shape, the Reds might actually go to the grind with a very representative rotation, certainly good enough to win their share with an offense that will batter lesser pitchers the Reds are sure to face. By the time it's all done, Aaron Harang could be the biggest winner on the Reds' staff.
Again, the Reds' low-to-the-ground approach for improving their club during the winter makes a lot of sense. A town can be a plenty good place to live in without adding skyscrapers, so long as the roads are paved. The Reds covered potholes at third base and in the bullpen, which should make for a much smoother ride.
The Reds remain flawed in ways that might kill them in close games. Their middle infield and corner outfields are suspect defensively. One imagines that opponents with runners on base will take too much advantage of gap liners and balls hit into the outfield corners as the Reds struggle to push the ball back to the infield and make good relay throws.
And the Reds' bench, like the starting lineup, is a circus of strikeouts. Wily Mo Pena, Jacob Cruz and Felipe Lopez all finished last year with more strikeouts than hits. Ryan Freel is quite a bit more reliable at the plate, but you don't know what he's going to do on the bases. With that said, Pena and Freel each brought a lot to the table offensively last season.
So it's on now and, so far, the Reds haven't been blown out of any game. So often in the past three years, the Reds were out of the game before it began because they were strapped for starting pitching.
Now they begin every game with a chance. And that gives them a much better chance over the long haul.