NL Central Notes: Struggling Reds limp to the All-Star break

ST. LOUIS — That three-team race in the NL Central could be down a team by the end of the month, at which time the Reds could be down to the wild-card race.

A 6-2 victory over St. Dominic grad Johnny Hellweg and the Brewers on Wednesday afternoon isn’t likely to end Cincinnati’s struggles, either. The Reds still have lost 12 of their past 20 games and fallen 4.5 games behind the first-place Cardinals.

Starting pitching isn’t the problem. No one in the Reds’ rotation owns an ERA higher than 3.70, and that belongs to Homer Bailey. All he did two starts ago was no-hit the Giants. As a unit, Reds starters rank just behind the Cardinals and Pirates in the majors with a 3.36 ERA.

The Reds’ bats, however, have gone quiet, especially in key situations. Going into Wednesday, only the Giants had scored fewer runs than Cincinnati since June 18, and the Reds hit just .182 with runners in scoring position during that stretch. The Cardinals, by comparison, hit .325 with RISP.

While Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce have provided their typical production, the bottom half of the order has really struggled. With left fielder Ryan Ludwick expected to be sidelined another month with a shoulder injury suffered on opening day, the Reds are just about desperate for a right-handed hitter with some power.

Injuries have taken their toll, too. Both catchers, Ryan Hanigan (hand) and Devon Mesoraco (back), are playing hurt and it shows in their hitting. Combined, they went 14-for-67 over the past 20 games with four RBIs and one homer.

Cincinnati has not had much success with winning teams all season. The Reds took advantage of Hellweg’s command woes Wednesday and they recently beat Seattle’s Jeremy Bonderman so badly he was designated for assignment. But the Reds’ best record against a winning team is 2-2 against the Indians. They’re a combined 7-12 against the Cardinals and Pirates.

The Reds’ schedule is about to turn tough, too. They finish play before the All-Star break with four games at Atlanta starting Thursday. Coming out of the break, they play three at home against the Pirates before embarking on a 10-game trip to the West Coast. Then it’s back home for three against the Cardinals and two against the AL West-leading Athletics.

If they still want to be in the race when the Cardinals visit Cincinnati, the Reds better get their bats going.

Division notes

Hellweg, acquired from the Angels in the Zack Greinke trade last season, doesn’t have much in the way of numbers to show for his first two weeks in the majors. He’s 0-3 with a 10.97 ERA. But with a fastball that reaches the upper-90-mph range, the Brewers like his future.

Hellweg, 24, needs to improve his command, which is even more challenging given the moving parts in the delivery of the 6-foot-9 right-hander. He has walked five in each of his past two starts even though he didn’t make it through five innings in either. In 10 2/3 innings over four outings so far, he has 13 walks.

Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun seems destined for the worst season of his seven-year career. While still facing possible suspension in the Biogenesis mess, Braun is trying to play through a messed-up right thumb. He went 1 for 3 Tuesday night in his first game back since a month on the disabled list, but he’s still hurting.

“It’s not close to 100 percent, but we don’t expect it to be close to 100 percent all year,” Braun told reporters in Milwaukee.

One more on the Brewers: Kyle Lohse seems to have found his comfort zone with his new team. After beating the Reds on Monday night, Lohse improved to 4-0 with a 2.37 ERA over his past eight starts.  For the season, his ERA is down to 3.47 to go with a 5-6 record.

The entire division will be glad to be done with the A’s in interleague play. The A’s have won each of their first five series against NL Central teams, going 10-3 before Wednesday night’s game at Pittsburgh. The Reds, who lost two games in Oakland last month, are the only NL Central club with any games left against the AL West leaders. Oakland visits Cincinnati Aug. 6-7.

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