Reds braced to fend off Pirates assault

CINCINNATI — Minus Joey Voto. Minus Brandon Phillips. Minus Ryan Ludwick. Minus Devin Mesoraco.
Despite more minuses than a row of subtraction problems, the Cincinnati Reds continue their relentless march of excellence.
They were missing 51 home runs and 281 RBIs from their regulars in Thursday afternoon’s lineup, but they nonetheless pounded the bejabbers out of the San Diego Padres, 9-4, in Great American Ball Park.
It doesn’t seem to matter how manager Dusty Baker mixes and matches, it all dissolves into the perfect concoction.
Votto is on the disabled list. Phillips is nursing a sore calf. Ludwick took the day off to rest. Mesoraco is on the disabled list.
It mattered not. The Reds won for the 20th time in 23 games. Without Votto, their best player, they are 14-3.
The man replacing Votto, Todd Frazier, crushed a two-run home run in the second inning. The man replacing Phillips, Miguel Cairo, poked a two-run single in the second. The two fill-ins provided four of the runs during the six-run inning.
In addition, second baseman Cairo and first baseman Frazier were part of a Three-Star double play in the sixth inning. Shortstop Zack Cozart made a diving stop behind second and while on his belly made a backhanded flip to Cairo. Cairo caught the ball barehanded, then pirouetted for his throw to first on which Frazier dug out of the dirt.
“That was big,” said Baker. “It was one thing we talked about before today’s game, playing better defense. We’ve been making an error a day for the last week or so and that’s not our team. We have to concentrate more on defense.”
And without Votto, Phillips and Ludwick the Reds still banged 13 hits.
Of course, it is one thing to blast the bottom feeders, take nine of ten from Houston, Colorado and San Diego, as the Reds have done in their last 10 games. But now comes a sterner, stiffer test, a test to see what stuff makes the Reds tick or not tick.
Their closest pursuer, the Pittsburgh Pirates, open a three-game series Friday night in an argument over first place in the National League Central.
It is one thing to beat the 44-63 Padres three of four without Votto or Phillips, but can they do it against the Pirates, against whom the Reds are 4-5.
“It’s a big series, like a playoff series,” said Baker. “They want to get closer and we want to put some distance between us. It will be tooth and nail.
“We’re pretty even — the home runs are pretty even, we’re close in batting average, close in pitching, close in stolen bases, close in a lot of departments,” Baker added.
And close in the series.
For certain, first baseman Votto won’t be coming back from the knee surgery he underwent little more than two weeks ago, even though there were murmurings that he might try it.
When asked if Votto might play this weekend, manager Dusty Baker raised his head from looking at some statistics on his desk and said, “What? Oh, hell no. Which weekend? Tomorrow? C’mon, man. He still hasn’t run and is just now starting to play a little first base in batting practice.”
It is clear that Votto is still recuperating on the knee surgery. When he walks up the steps from the dugout to the clubhous he uses a baseball bat as a cane.
“Well, that looks good, looks cool,” said Baker. “If I have to use a cane, it might as well be a bat.”
Phillips? Up in the air?
“We won’t know for sure until he gets here before the game tomorrow,” said Baker. “He said he felt better today, so we’ll see. If we need one more day to make sure he can give us two good games, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Johnny Cueto, the Reds’ best starter, beat the Padres Thursday for his 14th win. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that it means he won’t face the Pirates.
But Baker is confident his team is well-armed, sending 9-game winner Mat Latos against Pittsburgh’s newly acquired Wandy Rodriguez (7-9, 3.82) Friday night, a pitcher the Reds have used as a kewpie doll the past couple of years when he was with Houston.
On Saturday it is Mike Leake (4-7, 4.44) against James McDonald, 10-5, 3.38) and on Sunday it is Homer Bailey (9-6, 3.85) against Erik Bedard (5.12, 4.83).
Both Leake and Bailey need to be on Bounceback Trail after subpar efforts in their last outings. Bailey gave away a 6-0 lead, the Padres coming back to tie it, 6-6, but the Reds won it on a home run by Phillips, 7-6. Leake gave up five runs in only 1 2/3 innings while losing to San Diego, the Reds’ only loss in their last 10.
Baker said he is paying zero attention to the numbers like 20 wins in 23 games or a 14-3 record without Votto. What he does pay attention to is games over .500 and the Reds are a season’s best 23.
“I talked about reaching 20 and now that we are at 23 I’m getting greedy,” he said. “Now I want 25 and then I’ll want 30.”
For sure, he’d like to see the number at 26 over .500 when the Pirates leave town Sunday  night.