CINCINNATI — The National League Central, home of three postseason teams from last season, was expected to be a tight division race this season. That was before the Milwaukee Brewers got off to the hottest start in baseball and threatened to make everyone chase second place.
Things have gotten much more interesting in the past couple weeks and that was before the news that second baseman Brandon Phillips of the Reds and St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina will each miss at least the next six weeks with torn thumb ligaments.
Phillips injured his left thumb diving for a ground ball off the bat of Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo Wednesday night. He is expected to undergo surgery on Friday and, the Reds announced, will miss approximately six weeks. That’s on top of first baseman Joey Votto already being on the disabled list with a strained left distal quadriceps.
The Reds survived eight players on the disabled list at the start of the season. They’re going to have to do more than survive the prolonged absence of Phillips and Votto if they’re going to be playing baseball into October for the fourth time in five years.
"With these opportunities, I don’t think our guys have gone out there and tried to over-exceed," said manager Bryan Price. "They’re trying to do what they do comfortably. How do you just go out there and say we’re going to take out Brandon or Joey or whoever it may be and replace it with similar production. It’s a matter of all of our guys going out there and grinding our at-bats, which we’ve been doing, playing good defense, throwing strikes and doing the things we need to do to win. I don’t see any letdown."
The Reds were 8½ games behind Milwaukee on June 22, the day before they topped the .500 mark for the first time this season. They are 12-6 since and 26-13 since May 30. They were still seven games back of the Brewers five days ago, however, after dropping a 1-0 decision last Saturday. Milwaukee has lost five games in a row, including a 9-1 loss to Philadelphia Thursday that completed a four-game series sweep by the Phillies at Miller Park, and has allowed the Reds, St. Louis and Pittsburgh to all close the gap, with all four teams separated by just four games going into Thursday night’s Pittsburgh-St. Louis game.
Even with their 6-4 loss in 12 innings to the Chicago Cubs Thursday, a game in which they led 4-1 in the third inning, the Reds are just 2½ games behind the Brewers with three home games against Pittsburgh to go before the All-Star break.
There is the possibility of the Reds making a trade or two to help the situation prior to the July 31 no-waiver deadline but, Price said, Ramon Santiago and Skip Schumaker will for the time being split time at second base in place of Phillips. Brayan Pena, Todd Frazier and Jay Bruce have all played first base in Votto’s absence this season.
"We’ve got people who can step up," said Santiago, who has made 18 starts between second base, shortstop and third base this season. "Losing Brandon is a big key for our team but at the same time we’ve got to keep playing. Anytime you lose a player like him it’s bad for the team but we’ve got to try to pick him up."
Phillips is hitting .272 this season with seven home runs and 40 RBI. He leads the team with 19 doubles and has committed just one error all season defensively.
"It’s a big blow. He’s a great two-way player who has been really consistent for us offensively in the middle of the order," said Price. "He’s been spectacular defensively. It’s definitely a blow but we’ll weather it."
The Reds did get some good news on a couple of injury scares. Billy Hamilton left Wednesday’s game with a tight left hamstring. He didn’t start Thursday but did pinch-hit in the 10th inning. Price said Hamilton is expected to be back in the lineup Friday night against the Pirates.
Starting pitcher Homer Bailey left the game three pitches into the sixth inning with a strained right knee. Bailey had an MRI performed and is expected to be able to make his next start after the All-Star break. Price said the Reds could push Bailey to the back of the rotation to further give him time to heal.