The Cincinnati Reds are hoping Homer Bailey's trend of improvement over the last three seasons continues into 2014, and their confidence in it happening might best be measured in the $105 million they invested in him this offseason.
After signing a six-year extension in February, the right-hander makes his first start of the new season Thursday in front of a home crowd as the Reds try for a series win over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Bailey will oppose Lance Lynn, and neither starter should be overly intimidated from what they've seen from the opposition's bats thus far.
The NL Central clubs have combined for a .137 batting average and two runs in the first two games, with the Reds setting a franchise record with 17 straight innings without a run to start a season.
After the Cardinals won Monday's opener 1-0, the Reds returned the favor Wednesday with pinch-hitter Chris Heisey's walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth after rain delayed the start of the game by 2 hours, 40 minutes.
"It all comes down to the big hit," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "When you're having trouble getting many of them, you just need the right one at the right time. They put it together when they had to."
The win gave Cincinnati manager Bryan Price his first win on the job.
"It feels great from a selfish standpoint," Price said. "From a team standpoint, it's even better. It was important to get that first win and get the ball rolling."
Bailey now looks to continue that for the team and roll things over from last year for himself. His 2013 season ended with an 11-12 record, but he posted career bests in ERA (3.49), WHIP (1.12) and innings pitched (209) in 32 starts.
Against the Cardinals, Bailey went 2-2 with a 4.01 ERA in four starts, though he combined with the Reds bullpen to shut them out in his last two starts, hurling 14 1-3 scoreless innings while allowing seven hits and striking out 15.
He missed time during spring training with a strained groin, but the two March appearances he did log were effective, allowing two runs on three hits in seven innings with seven strikeouts.
The 27-year-old is expected to be working with a rookie catcher as Tucker Barnhart is scheduled to make his Reds debut. Barnhart started the year in the majors while Devin Mesoraco is on the disabled list with a strained left oblique.
"We would've loved to allow him to get some seasoning at Triple-A, get used to catching more veteran, experienced pitchers and seeing what it's like to hit off those same types of pitchers in Triple-A," Price told the team's official website. "That being said, there's no reluctance whatsoever to have him on our team working with our pitching staff. I think he'll do a phenomenal job and give us great support until we get Devin back."
Lynn showed plenty of consistency in his first two full seasons as he enters 2014 with 33 wins since the start of 2012 - tied for the most in the NL.
He went 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA in five starts against the Reds last season, though he's struggled as a starter at Great American Ball Park with a 1-1 record and 6.00 ERA in four career starts. His first two starts of the season are likely to come against Cincinnati.
Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Holliday and Allen Craig - the top four hitters in St. Louis' lineup Wednesday - have gone a combined 2 for 30 in the first two games.
Reds cleanup hitter Jay Bruce is 0 for 7.