Sunday, April 08, 2001

Reds not in swing of things

        MILWAUKEE — The pitch was somewhere above the belt and below the roof. Bob Boone's altitude estimate placed the ball slightly higher than Dmitri Young's batting helmet. Young took a swing at it anyway. What should have been Ball Four was, instead, Strike Three. What looked like a Reds rally was, instead, a mirage.

        “It was a case of me being overzealous,” Young explained after Saturday's 6-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. “That's both a plus and a minus for me.”

        If a pattern has developed during the first week of the baseball season, it is that the Reds appear awfully anxious in the absence of Ken Griffey Jr. They are swinging at pitches they ought to be taking and are being confounded by pitchers they're accustomed to pounding.

        Young's sixth-inning strikeout — which became an inning-ending double play when Barry Larkin was caught stealing — left Milwaukee journeyman Jamey Wright nine outs from a no-hitter. When Wright is this right, something is seriously wrong.

        The Reds eventually amassed three hits Saturday afternoon at Miller Park, but none of them mattered much. The Brewers were already ahead 5-0 when Aaron Boone broke up Wright's no-hitter with a one-out single in the seventh inning. Jason LaRue's leadoff home run in the eighth prolonged the Reds' non-shutout streak (now 169 games), but its dramatic effect was to provide Milwaukee manager Davey Lopes a cue to remove Wright from the game to a standing ovation.

        “Pitchers feel comfortable without Junior in the lineup,” said Ken Griffey, Sr., the Reds hitting coach. “Wright and (Jeff) D'Amico

        last night — we usually hit them pretty well. But when you get a big bat out of the lineup, human nature is that the other guys are going to try to do more than they're capable of doing.”

        Except for the discerning Barry Larkin (.526) and the indiscriminate Young (.320), no Reds regular is hitting more than .227. Some of this, surely, is a ripple effect of Junior's tender hamstring. More of it, Boone contends, is a product of personal pressure.

        “I don't think they're trying to do too much,” Boone said. “I think early in the season is a real tough time. If you don't get off good, you look up there (on the scoreboard) and you see that .100 average. You've just got to get a hit. As soon as you get into that (mindset) ... you're in trouble.”

        If Boone sometimes manages as if each game were Armageddon — warming up pitchers he doesn't use; changing lineups on the fly like some hyperactive hockey coach — he has seen enough to know that what he's seeing now is not a portrait but a snapshot. It is accurate only for an instant.

        “They'll settle down,” he promised. “We're better hitters than we've shown.”

        The virtue of the long season is that it allows the bad weeks to blend with the better ones. The problem with a slow start is that it promotes panic. Seasoned veterans recognize there will be droughts as well as downpours in the course of a campaign. Younger players are prone to imagine each at-bat as the end of the world.

        “Guys like Barry and Junior — they know what they're capable of doing,” Griffey Sr. said. “They're not trying to prove anything. A lot of the other guys are in their third year — (Aaron) Boone, Dmitri, (Sean) Casey. They're still young. They're trying to prove something.”

        With Ken Griffey Jr. available only to pinch hit, Ken Griffey Sr. suspects some of the Reds' younger players are trying to pick up a disproportionate share of the slack. He thinks Young might have taken that high 3-2 pitch Saturday had Junior been in the on-deck circle instead of on the bench.

        “I don't think Junior being here or not would have made anything different,” Young said. “I'm an aggressive hitter. It was just a pitch up in the zone and I got a little overzealous.”

        For the record, Young was a lot more than a little overzealous. Happily, one at-bat is not a trend. One week is not a season.

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