By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Bob Boone said it after the Reds' 6-1 run through the St. Louis Cardinals. Asked what it all meant, Boone said: "It may mean we're for real."
"May" is the operative word there. The weekend series in Milwaukee - the Reds won one and lost two - did nothing to sway the sentiment one way or another.
So 44 games into the season, these Reds remain a 50-50 proposition. They're a. .500 team that could go either way.
So are they contenders or pretenders?
The answer is the same as it was April 1: If they get decent starting pitching, they can contend. If they don't, it will be over by the Fourth of July.
When the Reds get a quality start from their pitchers, they are 11-3. When they don't, they are 11-19.
A quality start is any start in which the starter goes six innings and gives up three or fewer runs.
Quality starts don't win you the Cy Young. Heck, you can make nothing but quality starts and end up with a 4.50 ERA.
But as the record shows, the Reds are going to win many more times than not when they get a quality start.
A lot of factors play into that. The Reds have a good bullpen. If the starter gets to the sixth and the Reds are still in the game, they'll likely stay in it until the end.
If they stay in it until the end, their chances of winning are pretty good because they've played well in close games - they are 9-3 in one-run games - and they're hitting home runs like the '61 Yankees.
The starting pitching is about to get a severe test. After an off day Monday, the Reds open a three-game series with the Atlanta Braves at Great American Ball Park tonight. Thus begins a stretch of 12 games against Atlanta and Florida.
The Braves are the hottest team in baseball at 31-13 and have reeled off a 27-5 stretch following a 4-8 start. Atlanta's reputation during its unprecedented run of 11 straight division titles has been built on pitching. But this Atlanta team is a dangerous offensive club.
"It's always been about offense with them," Boone said. "They've exchanged parts over the years - with three exceptions - Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez - but they've always had mashers.
"Their lineup is as good as St. Louis'."
The Reds tamed the St. Louis lineup in winning six of seven games.
The Reds' starters had a 2.93 ERA those games. Only once did a starter give up more than three runs.
The starting pitching wasn't so good in Milwaukee. The Reds got only one quality start - Paul Wilson's six-inning, three-run outing on Sunday in their only win.
The starting pitching remains in flux. The Reds have used eight starters - Jimmy Haynes, Ryan Dempster, Danny Graves, Wilson, Jimmy Anderson, Chris Reitsma, John Riedling and Jeff Austin - this year.
The Opening Day starter, Haynes, is on the disabled list. There was a chance he would come off the DL to pitch against the Braves Wednesday. But the Reds decided instead to have him make a rehab start for Louisville on Thursday.
When Haynes returns, Riedling will likely return to the bullpen.
They key to the rotation becoming consistent appears to be Dempster. His resume is the best of the bunch. But since he got his first win of the year at Houston on April 3, he's struggled.
He missed a start because of an inflamed nerve in his neck. In his first start back after the brief layoff, he allowed five runs in five innings.
The Reds are as healthy as they've been since the first week of the season. Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin will begin playing on a regular basis tonight.
If the offense and defense get a little better, the Reds might prove they're really for real - if the starting pitching is quality, of course.
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