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August 3, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Cincinnati Reds @ San Diego Padres, 7/31/05

by Jonah Keri

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Two below-.500 teams who failed to improve their rosters hooked up Sunday at Petco Park. The only major difference between the two clubs? The sub-.500 Reds are dead and buried this season, with no shot to catch the division-leading Cardinals or take the Wild Card. The sub-.500 Padres, meanwhile, find themselves with a more favorable but still dubious title--worst division leader in baseball.

Heading into the game, the Pads owned the worst record in baseball since June 1, 16 games below .500. A loss on this day would hand the Reds their first road sweep in more than a year. Fortunately for San Diego, MLB's second-worst starting pitcher (31 homers allowed!), Eric Milton, was toeing the slab for the Reds. Could the Pads break the schneid?


CF Ryan Freel
SS Felipe Lopez
1B Sean Casey
LF Adam Dunn
2B Rich Aurilia
RF Wily Mo Pena
C Jason LaRue
3B Edwin Encarnacion
P Eric Milton

Not bad for a Sunday lineup. Ryan Freel moves to center, giving Ken Griffey Jr. a Sunday rest. Wily Mo Pena gets the start in right with Austin Kearns out with a tweaked hamstring. Rich Aurilia, whose 11 homers and .450 slugging percentage have caused him to complain about his lack of playing time-the ugly .315 and OBP and #11 VORP ranking among #16 NL 2B notwithstanding-gets his wish with the start at second. Jason LaRue's having a career year, combining with Javier Valentin to form the most productive catching tandem in the game. With the flammable Woody Williams on the mound for the Pads, scoring big off Milton looks like a must.

Dan Hoard informs us that Freel's hitting .304 "and better still, has the best on-base percentage of any leadoff man in the National League." Out of the majors entirely as recently as 2002, Freel's a 29-year-old late bloomer who's suddenly become a top-tier player. Why the Reds didn't trade Aurilia at the deadline with Freel and double-play partner Felipe Lopez both developing into top players is a mystery only Dan O'Brien can solve. The Reds GM had to be thinking one of two things in not trading Aurilia, let alone Dave Weathers and other non-star players who could have fetched prospects:

  1. 'This is a lousy market for sellers, I'm going to wait until August, make some waiver deals and get better returns then.'

  2. 'I need to save my job, so maybe if we win a lot of games and get closer to .500 I can delude our clueless ownership into keeping me around.'

Freel reaches on an infield single to start the game, hiking his OBP further above .400. One of the game's few legitimate threats to run at any time--at a high success rate to boot--Freel figures to make life miserable for Robert Fick. Fick hadn't caught in five years before this season, has had serious shoulder problems that have hampered his throwing, and was never a good defensive catcher even in the best of times. Going up against Freel looks like a mismatch. After an inexplicable bunt try on 1-1, though, Lopez strikes out, Williams improbably humping up on a high 91-mph fastball to get him. Still, Freel makes it to second during the at-bat, inducing Williams to cross up Xavier Nady on a pickoff try, resulting in an error.

A Sean Casey walk begets a Freel steal of third, with Casey hustling to second on an errant throw. Though Freel's taking a big risk by running with one of the best hitters in baseball up in Adam Dunn, it's hard to deny the excitement he injects into the game. Williams strikes out Dunn, though, using yet another high fastball to do the deed.

Well, Aurilia should get his shot here with two outs…only Freel takes off for home! A quick toss by Williams to Fick nails Freel on a play that was much closer than it should have been. As rare as stealing third base has become in the walks-and-homers era, trying a swipe of home, with a right-handed pitcher who can pick up the play earlier, is a piece of derring-do you never see anymore. It's tough to chastise Freel for making the poor percentage play--wrong as it was--when watching him is so damn exciting.


LF Eric Young
2B Mark Loretta
1B Xavier Nady
RF Brian Giles
3B Joe Randa
C Robert Fick
SS Khalil Greene
CF Damian Jackson
P Woody Williams

That's a weak, weak lineup, and the scary thing is, it's better than it's been. Khalil Greene and Mark Loretta both missed ample time due to injuries earlier in the year, and the decent Joe Randa is an upgrade over the punchless (and demoted) Sean Burroughs. Still, the Phil Nevin trade made no sense for either team (the Padres are among the worst power-hitting teams in baseball, while the Rangers have a ton of slugging corner/DH types), Ramon Hernandez's injury will cost him most of August if not more, and Ryan Klesko's sitting against a lefty. This team just isn't very good, and it hurts itself even more when it favors guys like Pedro Astacio over better talent like Tim Stauffer.

Eric Young, who along with Mark Sweeney at least gives the Padres a better one-two punch off the bench than most teams can claim, ropes a double to the left-field corner on the second pitch. But Milton quickly settles down, striking out Loretta on a knee-high fastball that just nips the outside corner, a popout to second and a flyout to right. Typical Milton inning: hit hard at first, with all his outs either via the K or through the air.

Top of the 2nd and Pena works the count to 2-2 with one out. Williams' slow curve hangs in the middle of the plate, and Pena hits it a mile. Damian Jackson, like Freel playing out of position in center, gets his whole body on top of the 7.5-foot wall, but fails to pull the ball back in. That's the sixth homer of the series for the Reds, Petco's spacious pastures be damned. No such power display for the Pads, who squander singles by Fick and Jackson and exit the 2nd down 1-0.

The Reds go in order in the 3rd, bringing Milton back out to the mound. With his Achilles heel the home run heavily suppressed at Petco, Milton's got a chance to keep the Padres at bay. Young's hard-hit shot to center ends up a fairly routine play for Freel. Loretta pops out to Aurilia, the fourth Padre to deposit a pop-up in the second baseman's mitt. Nady's flyout to right ends the inning--Milton has yet to get a groundball out, no surprise for one of the most extreme flyball pitchers in the majors.

Top of the 4th, and the Reds look ready to hand the Padres an ignominious sweep. A 0-1 change-up from Williams doesn't fool Casey, the pitch resulting in a hard double to right. Williams does come back to fan Dunn on yet another high fastball. But Aurilia jumps on the first offering to him, cranking a ball into the top deck of the Western Metals building in left, just the third player to reach that level since the park opened. A Pena strikeout makes it an impressive six for Williams in 3.2 IP, but a long LaRue double shows that he's not fooling enough hitters. The Padres get out of the inning down a still reasonable 3-0.

The way the offense is going, though, that could be an insurmountable lead at this point. The Padres' next few innings:

  • 4th: Giles groundout (first of the game), flyout, single, strikeout on outside fastball (Milton's third of the game, all three on outside-corner fastballs)

  • 5th: Nifty curve drops in for strike two, then Milton strikes out Jackson on another outside-edge fastball; pinch-hitter Dave Ross strikes out on…wait for it…an 89-mph outside fastball; Young works the count full, then becomes Milton's sixth strikeout victim, the ubiquitous outside fastball striking out the side

  • 6th: Loretta pops out to center; Nady flies out to right; Giles lines out to first

  • 7th: Randa and Fick fly out to center, Greene grounds out to third
Milton's line for the game: 7 IP, 6 K, 0 BB, 4 H, 0 R, two groundball outs. A monstrous Adam Dunn grand slam in the 5th (his third homer of the series, the Reds' eighth) carries Cincinnati to a 7-1 win and the sweep.

The upshot? David Ross, Ryan Meaux, Miguel Olivo and Chan Ho Park aren't going to be nearly enough to turn this sinking ship around. A hot stretch by Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin in Arizona could be enough to get a deeply flawed DBacks team to .500 and a division title; even the Dodgers still have an outside shot, as badly as everyone else is playing.

As Sunday's game wound down, a fan got up and started chanting: "Let's go Chargers, let's go!" Visions of Drew Brees in August? The first-place Padres have some work to do.

--

Set Your VCRs and TiVos, or better yet, get thee to Safeco Field!: The next Prospectus Game of the Week features the Minnesota Twins taking on the visiting Seattle Mariners. The team matchup matters far less than the pitching matchup: Kyle Lohse vs... Felix Hernandez, the first teenage pitcher in the majors in 14 years. It's King Felix's home debut, DirecTV Channel 745, 10 p.m. ET.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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