Monday, August 12, 2002

Reds enter critical stretch



By JOE KAY
AP Sports Writer

        As soon as they finished hopping on the plate and smacking Aaron Boone on the helmet, the Cincinnati Reds started looking ahead.

        Seventeen days. Seventeen tough games.

        The NL's surprise contender is entering its toughest stretch of the season with a lot of momentum and lack of delusions. Aaron Boone's two-run homer in the 12th inning Sunday gave the Reds a 9-7 victory over the San Diego Padres, followed by a giddy home plate celebration.

        It didn't last long. Those 17 games were already weighing on their minds.

        “If we can hang in there, we've got a shot at this thing,” Boone said. “We're going to find out how good we are.”

        Boone hit three homers in the series opener, then finished off a 6-hour, 3-minute odyssey with a two-run shot off Brandon Villafuerte (1-1). The Reds' three-game sweep moved them into second place alone in the NL Central, two games behind St. Louis.

        In the next 17 days, the Reds will play the Cardinals, the third-place Astros and the Diamondbacks — a stretch that will either launch them into a September stretch run or turn them into an also-ran.

        They haven't done very well against good teams so far. They're an abysmal 20-38 against teams with winning or .500 records, 41-17 against the rest.

        They went 5-1 against the last-place Padres in the last 10 days.

        “That's one reason why they're still in the race,” Padres manager Bruce Bochy said.

        Boone had a lot to do with it.

        Vilified because he kept his job during a first-half slump, Boone has turned the catcalls into curtain calls with his best spurt of the season. The slender third baseman went 7-for-16 during the series with four homers, two doubles, a single and nine RBIs.

        Eight of his last 14 hits have been homers, leaving him with a career-high 22.

        “I hope he stays Mark McGwire for awhile,” said closer Danny Graves, who blew a two-run lead in the ninth.

        Barry Larkin's three-run homer helped the Reds pull ahead 7-2 after six innings, a lead so comfortable that manager Bob Boone gave Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr. the rest of the game off.

        He kept his son in the game, one of his few right moves as the game quickly turned.

        Bubba Trammell hit two homers off the Reds' bullpen, including a two-run shot in the ninth off Graves that tied it. A storm halted the game for 1-hour, 33 minutes in the bottom of the inning.

        When the rain ended, so did the scoring. Both teams left the bases loaded in the 11th. Jose Rijo (5-3) escaped a threat in the 12th, and Boone hit a two-strike fastball to finally end it.

        “That was about as big as you can come up, right there,” Bob Boone said. “It turned out to be a long day. It ended up good, but there was a lot of bad in between.”

        It was better than the alternative — a deflating loss heading into that 17-game stretch.

        “People would have talked about it as the beginning of the end,” Aaron Boone said. “But we've been resilient. In a sense, we've had nine lives. At some point, we've got to go on a pretty good run if we're going to win this thing.”

        Notes: OF Mark Kotsay was hit on the left hand by a pitch in the eighth. He left the game, but X-rays were negative. ... The Reds hit eight homers during their first home-field sweep of the Padres since May 9-11, 2000. ... Larkin missed Saturday's game after his neck locked up for the third time in 10 days. He saw a chiropractor and was back in the lineup Sunday, going 1-for-3 with his seventh homer.

       



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