Reds look to power through injuries, early struggles
With eight on DL to open season, talented club finds itself in NL Central cellar
ST. LOUIS -- Knowing his club would start the season with a league-high eight players on the disabled list, first-year manager Bryan Price often said that he hoped the Reds could weather the storm until the team got injured players back in April and early May.
Price could not have predicted the storms would come on multiple fronts, or that his team would be 3-6 and sitting in fifth place in the National League Central entering Thursday's off-day.
While a polar vortex seems to have frozen some bats, there have also been untimely moments where a starting pitcher hasn't held an early lead, where the bullpen has let a game get away and a defensive miscue has cost the team a game.
"Realistically, we are where we are because we haven't played many complete games where we've been able to situationally hit, pitch and defend completely well enough to win on a regular basis," Price said.
The Reds are batting .234 as a team, including .214 with runners in scoring position. Leadoff hitter Billy Hamilton started 0-for-12 with six strikeouts in the first three games, but he has come on lately, going 5-for-14 over his last three. Jay Bruce is batting .188 through nine games, while Joey Votto is hitting .250 without a home run. Shortstop Zack Cozart is off to a 1-for-26 start.
While itchy Cincinnati fans might start white-knuckling with angst, they need only look at the team that has beaten the Reds in four of the first nine games. The Cardinals have a 5-4 record, despite batting .215 as a team. St. Louis, a team that was historically good with runners in scoring position last season, is currently batting .181 in those situations.
On the pitching side, Cincinnati's rotation is ranked third in the NL with a 3.05 ERA. But in his two starts this season, Homer Bailey -- signed to a six-year, $105 million extension in February -- has blown leads of 3-0 and 4-0. Tony Cingrani had a brilliant seven-inning season debut, but the left-hander lasted only four innings in his second start. Then there is ace Johnny Cueto, who is winless despite allowing only three earned runs over 14 innings.
"I think everybody in here expects a lot more," said Bailey, who hasn't gotten past the fifth inning in either outing. "I don't think anybody in here would have expected that or conceived it in their mind, but it's where we're at unfortunately. We just need to be better."
What's frustrating the Reds is also a source of their optimism. They're losing close games and aren't being blown out. In their six defeats, there have been three losses by one run, two losses by two runs and one by three runs.
"It's disappointing. It also suggests that we're competitive," Price said. "We've been in situations to win games, and we haven't. That's going to need to change here in a hurry."
It shows them that the difference between having a 3-6 record and 6-3 record isn't as big as it would normally seem.
"We're not getting blown out, but it's just a matter of finishing ballgames," third baseman Todd Frazier said. "If we get up four runs, we need to get four more. We have to keep tacking on. We're playing tough competition.
"In the NL Central, it's every team top to bottom. We're in last place right now, so every team is better than us right now. You hate to look at it that way."
Some reinforcements have already arrived, with catcher Devin Mesoraco coming off of the DL and going 4-for-8 with a homer in his first two games. Reliever Jonathan Broxton was activated on Tuesday, but he has yet to pitch. Broxton will assume closing duties until Aroldis Chapman returns. Chapman, who was struck in the face by a line drive during Spring Training and sustained fractures above the left eye and nose, has begun working out and throwing lightly.
One other injured player who seemed close to returning was starting pitcher Mat Latos, but he had a setback this week with elbow inflammation. Latos' timetable is unknown until after he rests for a couple of days. Price was also hopeful that lefty reliever Sean Marshall would be ready in a couple of weeks.
The bullpen -- which began without four of its mainstays -- has been one of Price's bigger issues. It has gone 1-for-3 in save opportunities, which included J.J. Hoover giving up a walk-off grand slam to the Mets on Saturday. There have also been a couple of games in which opponents added on in the middle innings, making comebacks more difficult.
"Where we've struggled a little bit is bridging that starter to the late-game bullpen situation," Price said. "We've had a couple of games get away from us in those swing innings in the sixth or seventh. If we're all full strength in the bullpen, we're probably doing things slightly differently. We continue to have confidence in the guys we give the ball to. I don't have any expectation of underperformance, regardless of who we bring in from that bullpen."
The schedule remains a challenge during the first month of the season. Up next are the Rays for three games at Great American Ball Park, followed by three more against a division nemesis in the Pirates. After that is a 10-game road trip at the Cubs, Bucs and Braves.
Wednesday's 4-0 win was example of what the Reds can do when everything works as they expected. Despite the team going 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position, Hamilton had the dazzling type of day expected of him, as he reached base four times, stole two bases and scored on a sacrifice fly that actually was a popup just outside of the infield. Mike Leake threw eight smooth innings and Manny Parra closed it out.
"Every game we play is going to be a battle until we get back to where we need to be -- whatever that takes," Frazier said.