By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The chinks in the Reds' armor are starting to show.
A rejuvenated Ken Griffey Jr. (second from left) has helped the Reds to a 34-25 record. His two stints on the disabled list hurt the 2002 club after it started with the same mark.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/MICHAEL E. KEATING
After three straight humbling losses in Oakland, the doubts that lingered just below the surface when things were going well are now being discussed openly.
It may have seemed cynical and pessimistic to wonder a week ago if the Reds could sustain what they had done during the first third of the season.
But as they begin a three-game interleague series tonight against the Indians at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, the questions are logical, especially when you consider recent history.
Just two years ago, during the 2002 season, their last in Cinergy Field, the Reds' record after 59 games was identical to the one they begin play with in Cleveland tonight.
On June 7, 2002, they were 34-25 and in first place in the National League Central by one game. As they take on the Indians tonight, they're 34-25 and lead the St. Louis Cardinals by a half-game.
The Reds finished the 2002 season with a 78-84 record, in third place, 19 games behind the first-place Cardinals.
Are this year's Reds - with right fielder Austin Kearns, infielder Juan Castro and pitcher Aaron Harang on the disabled list, with shortstop Barry Larkin out because of a lower abdominal strain and with the starting pitching seemingly in free fall - on the verge of a similar collapse?
In 2002, the Reds were still 10 games over .500 on June 15 and clinging to their one-game lead when they went into a tailspin that saw them lose eight straight, including six against American League teams Seattle and Oakland. From the end of the losing streak until the end of the season, they went 40-48 and fell out of contention.
"The past is the past," said catcher Jason LaRue. "We never look back on what happened then. This is a different team. A lot of people are different here."
Indeed, only 11 players remain from that team and two of those - Jose Acevedo (six games) and Brandon Larson (23 games) - made only token appearances that season. The starting rotation is different and only John Riedling and Danny Graves remain from the bullpen.
Dave Miley has replaced Bob Boone as manager and Dan O'Brien has replaced Jim Bowden as general manager.
Only bullpen coach Tom Hume, pitching coach Don Gullett and current third base coach Mark Berry remain on the coaching staff.
"I can't remember who all was on that 2002 team," Graves said. "I never would have guessed that we had the same record because those years were miserable.
"This team is better at fundamentals because we worked on it a lot extra this spring. We're just having so much fun playing the game. If we're down we still have the feeling that we can win. In the past, if we got down 1-0 or 2-0 it was like, 'Oh, here we go again.' It's not like that with this team."
The Reds were behind a lot in the early innings in 2002. To remedy that situation, Bowden made four in-season trades for pitching. The two biggest were for right-hander Ryan Dempster and left-hander Shawn Estes. Both were disappointments.
Dempster went 5-5 with a 6.19 ERA in 15 starts. Estes went 1-3 with a 7.71 ERA in six starts.
This year's rotation, led by Paul Wilson (7-0, 3.18), had remained stable since the release of Jimmy Haynes on May 10 until Harang went on the disabled list on June 4 and three other starters were shelled by Oakland.
"There's no doubt this is a better team," LaRue said, "obviously a much more relaxed team that just plays 100 percent together and is 100 percent backed by the coaching staff.
"When you have a relaxed atmosphere like that, basically all they expect us to do is go out and give it everything we've got. It's a lot easier atmosphere to play in."
The most obvious difference this year, though, is the play of center fielder Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey spent two long stints on the disabled list in 2002, from April 8 to May 24 with a knee injury and from June 25 to July 22 with a hamstring injury. He already has more home runs (17-8) and runs batted in (48-23) this year than he did the entire 2002 season.
"He looks like he's 25 again," Graves said.
And first baseman Sean Casey, leading the National League in hitting through Wednesday with a .374 average this season, was limited by a shoulder injury that ended his season prematurely on Sept. 9. He hit six home runs with 42 RBI the entire season compared with 11 home runs and 43 RBI already this year.
Overall, the Reds had 19 players make 26 appearances on the DL in 2002 compared to five players and seven appearances so far this year.
And, unlike the 2002 club, this team has played much better against quality competition. The 2002 Reds were 54-36 against teams with losing records, 24-48 against everyone else. This year the Reds are 21-19 vs. teams that entered Thursday's games with a winning record and 10-3 against teams that were in first place at the time the Reds played them.
Despite his confidence that the Reds are in this for the long haul, Graves said the skepticism from fans and the media is only natural.
"They understand it's a long season," Graves said. "A lot of teams can be right there for the first month or so. Whether they can hold on, who knows? But I know everybody in this locker room feels that we can."
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