Reds begin second half looking for a title

Anybody out there who believes the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to win the National League Central please raise your hands — and if you are from the Pittsburgh area, put your hands down.
 
Of course, the Chicago Cubs can be eliminated right now because the Cubs are usually eliminated on Opening Day and are so far out of it right now that they need Mount Palomar to see first place.
 
And it’s the same with the Houston Astros, who are in a rebuilding process and so far they haven’t even completed the foundation.
 
The Milwaukee Brewers? They looked good when the season began, despite the loss of first baseman Prince Fielder, because of apparent strong starting pitcher. But the Brewers are much like the beer for which they are named — very old beer that is stale and flat.
 
That leaves two teams: The Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals.
 
When play commences Friday after the All-Star break, the Pirates lead the Reds by one game and the Cardinals by 2 ½ games.
 
The Reds embarked on an 11-game trip to the west coast with a one-game lead over the Pirates. When they lost five of the first eight, Pittsburgh took the lead. But the Reds won the last three games of the trip in San Diego to go 6-5, a passable journey.
 
And it gets dicey for the Reds right away — a three-game series in Great American Ball Park against the Cardinals, an early showdown that should establish an early trend.
 
The Cardinals, defending World Series champions, were devastated and decimated by injuries during the first half, but kept hanging around and hanging around, refusing to go away, and with each passing day they get healthier and healthier.
 
And they seem to be the legitimate threat to the Reds.
 
Offensively, the Reds were no match for the Carinals in the first half. St. Louis had the best team batting average in the National League at .275 while the Reds were only ninth best at .248.
 
But if good pitching beats good hitting, then that explains why the Reds managed to stay a few steps ahead of the Cardinals during the first half.
 
Cincinnati’s team earned run average of 3.39 was second-best in the National League while the Cardinals were sixth at 3.91. And the Reds had seven complete games and five shutouts to two complete games and three shutouts for the Cardinals.
 
For the Reds to hold off the Cardinals, a team that came from far behind late last season to win the wild card and then the World Series, the pitching must continue to be sharp.
 
And it would do no harm for the hitting to pick up, especially with runners in scoring position, a situation for which the Reds seemingly cringe in fear.
 
A major facet in the Reds favor is the continued improvement of three rookies who play a lot — shortstop Zack Cozart, third baseman/outfielder Todd Frazier and catcher Devin Mesoraco.
 
As happens so often with rookies, all had spurts of success and periods of angst, but with a half year of experience they should continue to improve and get better.
 
Frazier’s emergence has dropped a major dilemma into the lap of Reds manager Dusty Baker.
  
Whom does he play at third base, veteran Scott Rolen or rookie Todd Frazier.
 
Rolen has struggled mightily with injuries and a sick bat, hitting .178 the first half. He returned to the lineup after sitting out several game with a back spasms for the last game of the first half. He was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts during a 4-2 win over the San Diego Padres.
 
Frazier is hitting .278 with nine home runs.
 
“I don’t want to be answering questions every day about why Rolen is playing and Frazier isn’t or why Frazier is playing and Rolen is not,” said Baker. “Let’s just say it is going to be the manager’s decision. Right now, I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.”
 
Baker continues to scratch his graying head over what to do with his batting order.
 
Joey Votto continues to be Vottmatic, one of baseball’s best hitters with a .348 batting average and .471 on-base average.
 
The problem is what is ahead of him in the batting order. Too often he comes to bat with nobody on base, nobody to drive in. Leadoff hitter Zack Cozart is batting .252 with a .298 on-bone average. No. 2 hitter Drew Stubbs, who had only one hit on the 11-game trip, is batting .215 with a .286 on-base average and a penchant for striking out.
 
Baker could consider dropping Stubbs to sixth or seventh in the order, where he had a modicum of success last year, and moving Brandon Phillips (.280) to second in the order, or even to leadoff, where he has batted before.
 
With Phillips moving, it would leave a void at clean-up behind Votto. One option is right fielder Jay Bruce, who has made the most of a poor .249 average with 18 homers and 56 RBI. Or he could consider outfielder Ryan Ludwick, who has 12 home runs while mostly sharing left field with Chris Heisey or Frazier.
 
Once again, though, that’s a “manager’s decision.”
 
Mat Latos, who endured an ugly April but is 7-2 and on a postive three-game roll, starts Friday night against the Cardinals and the team desperately needs him to continue pitching with confidence and his pocket full of good stuff.
 
Johnny Cueto, of course, is no problem after his 10-5 first half with a 2.39 ERA.
 
The team definitely needs more consistency from Homer Bailey (7-6, 4.14), who for one start can resemble Don Drysdale and for his next start can resemble Don Knotts.
 
Mike Leake (3-6, 4.01) and Bronson Arroyo (4-5, 3.73) have for the most part pitched sharply for six or seven innings, but are eligible to sue their teammates for lack of support.