Reds beat Astros 8-2, off to best start since '90
CINCINNATI -- Another question posed, another question answered — and answered with an exclamation point in Roman boldface type.
The question: Were pitcher Mike Leake's spring training struggles an indicator of awful things to come and could he step into the rotation to replace Johnny Cueto when Cueto matriculated to the disabled list?
The answer: No, they were not an indicator, they were false impressions. And yes, emphatically, Leake could take his place in the rotation.
Leake put a gauze surgical mask over the Houston Astros Tuesday night in Great American Ball Park -- six innings, two runs, three hits, two walks, four strikeouts.
Combine Leake's pitching with the the daily dose of extremely potent hitting by the Cincinnati Reds offense and it turns out to be an 8-2 victory over the Astros, the Reds' fourth straight victory to start the 2011 season.
A Reds team hasn't begun a season 4-and-0 since the 1990 Reds, who won their first nine en route to a wire-to-wire championship, which they spiced by blasting the Oakland Athletics four straight in the World Series.
Leake, who made the team right out of Arizona State University last year without a stop in the minors -- he didn't pass Go and he didn't collect $200 (he collected a whole lot more) -- was shut down last August to prevent extreme wear and tear on his young, tender arm.
A few eyebrows arched during Leake's first five spring exhibition appearances when he gave up 16 runs and 27 hits in 15 1/3 innings, a plug-ugly 9.39 earned run average.
"It was six months since I pitched, so I forgot how to pitch, basically," said the club's No. 1 draft pick in 2009. "I needed those five outings just to remember what it was like to pitch."
His last spring outing was a one-run, six-hit, 5 2/3-innings success against the Chicago White Sox and he said, "That last outing I finally felt like I remembered how to pitch and today was a step in the right direction."
Despite Leake's lumpy start this spring, manager Dusty Baker insists he had no concerns.
"I don't worry about that too much because I try to go on a guy's history, even though his is very short," said Baker. Leake began his major-league career with a 5-0 start and finished the year 8-4 with a 4.23 ERA. "I just think he might have been trying to overthrow some.
"I'm sure he was feeling strong because he hadn't pitched for months," Baker added. "When you feel strong you have a tendency to throw too hard. He was throwing 92 to 93 miles an hour, so he was throwing through the sink and the break on his pitches.
"The main thing is that we know he can pitch and maybe he was trying too hard because there were six to seven guys vying for five rotation spots," said Baker. "He wasn't going back to the minors even if he didn't make the rotation, but we couldn't tell him that. But he might have been afraid he might be going back."
Leaked agreed he was throwing too hard early in the spring, something he can't do to have any sniff of success.
"I'm like Greg Maddux," said Leake. "I have to change speeds. I can't stay on a consistent velocity or else I'll start to get hit."
The Astros (0-4) weren't hitting anything he threw except for a single in the second by Brett Wallace, a single by Angel Sanchez in the fifth and a bloop two-run opposite-field double in the fifth by Michael Bourne that nestled into right field like a parachute jumper.
The Reds, though, pounded and pummeled Astros left-hander J.A. Happ, scoring three in the first and two in the second. Happ induced self-flagellation by walking five and hitting one in the first two innings.
In their four wins, the Reds have scored 31 runs and pounded 46 hits. On Tuesday the top of the order buried the Astros -- Drew Stubbs 2 for 5 with a run and a stolen base, Brandon Phillips 2 for 2 with a walk and three runs scored and Joey Votto 2 for 4 with two runs scored and an RBI double.
Baker said if his team didn't buy into what was impressed upon them last year, they are lining up to buy it now.
"You try to prepare your guys in spring training, lots of at-bat and tirelessly working on fundamentals and doing them and not complaining about it. They realize the importance of it after last year," said Baker.
"Whatever we sold last year is an easier sell this year," he added, referring to the fact that what they sold to the team led to the NL Central title. "It's all the things you try to sell -- hard work, fundamentals, practice, good health, work hard over the winter and come to camp in great shape. All these things contribute to getting off to a good start."
There was one slight scare, but it was a false alarm.
Second baseman Brandon Phillips used a funky approach to a slide home to score his third run in fourth inning and left the game.
"I knocked the breathe out of myself," he said. "I had to sit down because I couldn't breathe," he said. "I went out there huffing and puffing while trying to play defense.
"I didn't know if I was going to have to slide and I just sort of fell down, then did my little Army crawl to the plate," he added. "I'm good and I'll play tomorrow. I just need to work on my slides to home. I know that was an ugly slide."
Nothing else these days is ugly about the Reds.