By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer
This was supposed to be a story about all that is right about the Reds this year. But then things went so wrong in Milwaukee on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Reds spent Thursday's off day in Houston.
"It's a good time for a day off," Reds manager Dave Miley said.
But a lot of time, no doubt, was spent pondering the two games that got away.
The Reds open tonight's four-game series with Houston with a 12-9 record - the same as the $75 million Astros - but dual debacles in Milwaukee left Reds fans with a list of worries longer than one of Adam Dunn's home runs:
Is the bullpen going to be OK?
Is Ken Griffey Jr. ever going to be Ken Griffey Jr. again?
Will Brandon Larson play in the majors the way he plays in Triple-A?
Has the starting pitching headed south for good?
Is the injury bug back? (Jason LaRue went on the disabled list Thursday with a fracture of his right index finger.)
The losses in Milwaukee were equally troubling in very different ways.
Tuesday, the game got away in two instants: first, Larson's throwing error, then Bill Hall's two-run, walk-off home run off Danny Graves.
Wednesday, the game slowly bled away with the nine-run lead. By the time Hall won it with a perfect squeeze bunt in the 10th, a loss had seemed inevitable.
The common thread in both: The Reds' starting pitcher left early, leaving the bullpen a long time to protect the lead. For the seventh time in 17 chances, the relievers blew the save.
"The reality is it's the nature of the game," general manager Dan O'Brien said. "We had tough days back to back. But we'll go forward. We never wavered in the support and confidence in our bullpen."
The bullpen has been viewed as a strength of the club. That assumption is based on last season, when Reds relievers went 36-21 with a 4.03 ERA.
But the double blowup left the 2004 relief corps with a 3-5 record and 5.79 ERA.
That really shouldn't be all that surprising, given that this is something of a patchwork crew. Four of the seven relievers have been released in their careers.
John Riedling is the only holdover from Opening Day last year. Riedling, 0-0 with a 0.84 ERA, coincidentally or not, has been the best of the bunch.
A large part of the bullpen's struggles can be blamed on the Reds' cost-cutting, build-for-the-future movement. The Reds' two best arms last year - Scott Williamson and Chris Reitsma - were traded for young pitching, even though neither has reached his 29th birthday. They would be the top setup men for closer Graves, or Williamson would be closing.
Instead, the Reds started the season with Todd Jones, a released player, and Ryan Wagner, a rookie, in the key setup roles.
Jones has been very good for the most part. But he's 1-0 with a 4.72 ERA after being charged with three runs Wednesday night. Wagner, who gave up the hit that scored the runs Jones gave up Wednesday, is 1-1 with an 8.22 ERA.
Williamson, meanwhile, has a 0.00 ERA for Boston. Reitsma has a 2.84 ERA for Atlanta.
The players the Reds got for Reitsma - Jung Keun Bong and Bubba Nelson - are struggling at Triple-A. The player the Reds got for Williamson - Phillip Dumatrait - had elbow surgery and is out for the season.
Graves, back in the closer role after starting last year, leads the major leagues with three blown saves. Most troubling is that Graves has given up five home runs in 11 2/3 innings.
The Reds' problems don't end with the bullpen - the starting pitching has slipped. The Reds have had one quality start (six innings or more, three runs or fewer) in their last eight games.
The starters are averaging just more than 5 1/3 innings per start - a hair better than last year. That has put an added burden on the bullpen.
The best two starters have been the younger guys - Aaron Harang (2-0, 3.52 ERA) and Jose Acevedo (2-1, 4.26 ERA).
Cory Lidle managed only five innings and allowed six runs in Tuesday's loss. Paul Wilson had to leave with lower back pain after allowing four runs in six innings Wednesday.
The offense produced 17 runs in the two games in Milwaukee, but the club has gotten consistent production from only one guy, Sean Casey.
Casey is hitting .422 and is tied with Adam Dunn for the club RBI lead with 18.
Dunn started well but is 3-for-17 (.176) in his last seven games. Part of it is he's not seeing many good pitches; he has walked 10 times in those seven games.
Griffey has not hit a home run in 50 at-bats. His average is down to .231.
Leadoff hitter D'Angelo Jimenez is hitting .244. LaRue is hitting .211 - and that's only after two big games.
The bench - a major weakness since the start - was further weakened by Austin Kearns' injury.
In the two games Kearns missed, Miley started Wily Mo Pena and Jason Romano. Pena went 1-for-4 but misplayed a flyball into a three-run triple. Romano, signed a week ago, went 1-for-5 with an infield single. He did throw a runner out at the plate.
Miley sat Larson Wednesday after he made the error Tuesday that cost the Reds the game. But Larson is going to play. Whether he can finally produce at the major-league level is anybody's guess.
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