COMMENTARY| Winning teams have to beat the teams they should beat, and the Cincinnati Reds have fulfilled that expectation in the first half of the 2013 baseball season by compiling a 40-26 record as of June 12. The Reds have managed to keep pace with an unconscious St. Louis Cardinals team in the NL Central division but have failed to take advantage of their head-to-head opportunities with the Cardinals by winning just three of nine contests against their rivals. The Reds have stumbled overall against winning teams so far this season by posting a meager 7-14 record against those teams. Their 33-12 dominance over losing teams is a strong testament to the Reds' potency, but if the Reds are going to pass the Cardinals by July 4, they are going to have to figure out ways to beat winning teams.
The Reds start a 16-game stretch on June 17 that will pit them against teams that currently sport winning records. Half of those games will be played during a West Coast road trip. The reversal in schedule strength couldn't have been envisioned at the outset of the season when the expectation for the Los Angeles Angels, Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies was that all of these teams would be winning ones. If these three teams are included, the Reds are still just 16-21 against the better teams they have played. Now that the schedule does include this West Coast road trip with three straight series against winning teams, the Reds are likely going to have to fare better than the 2012 team did during an 11-game West Coast trip in late June and early July that started with the Reds in first place in the division and finished with the team in second place after going 6-5 during that trip.
That is, if the Reds are intent on claiming first place in the division for their own before the All-Star break.
First and foremost, the Reds have to improve their bullpen for any expectation that the 16-game stretch will end well. Five of the games on the West Coast road trip will be against American League teams, so the designated hitter will be a factor not only for the starting rotation but also for a bullpen that had blown three seventh or eighth-inning leads against winning teams in three of the Reds' last seven games before a merciful four-game road trip to face the hapless Chicago Cubs. Against good teams, the bullpen has to be ready, and at some point during this stretch that could include the return of left-handed reliever Sean Marshall. The tandem of right-hander Sam LeCure and lefty Manny Parra against left-handed hitters is not a formula for success against winning teams. Having Marshall would be a huge boost for this stretch.
Another improvement that the Reds will have to make is the their own use of the DH in the five games against the Oakland A's and the Texas Rangers. The Reds have played just two games on the road against an American League team this year -- the Cleveland Indians -- and their DHs were Jack Hannahan batting ninth and Devin Mesoraco batting seventh. They pair batted a combined 1-for-8, and the Reds scored just three total runs in both games, which were losses.
The return of outfielder Chris Heisey may occur at some point during the 16-game stretch that awaits the Reds. His most recent setback from a strained hamstring derailed an impending minor league rehab assignment that was supposed to start on June 7. In the disabled list absence of Heisey since April 29, left fielder Xavier Paul has emerged as a solid left-handed bat and rookies Derrick Robinson and Donald Lutz have both performed well. The trio has combined for six home runs, 35 RBIs and 27 runs scored. Whether or not the Reds continue to rely on two of these subs or all three into July remains to be seen, but if the Reds have any designs on adding a right-handed hitting power bat to play left field before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, sooner rather than later might have more of an impact to help the Reds fare better over the next month against teams with winning records.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years. You can read his articles about the 2012 Reds season here.
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