Dusty Baker couldn't resist having a little fun with the reporters gathered around him. The Reds manager was asked Tuesday night how he planned to set up his starting rotation for next week's pivotal series against the Cardinals. Baker grinned then playfully did not answer the question.
"It's privileged information," he said.
With that, Baker leaned back in his chair and laughed. It is the beginning of August and Baker is being asked questions about the pennant race. He couldn't be happier.
"It's been a four-year drought for me," Baker said. "It feels good to be playing important games this late in the season. It feels real good."
The Cubs went 79-83 and 66-96 in 2005 and 2006, respectively, Baker's final two seasons as manager. He spent 2007 as an analyst for ESPN before returning to the dugout in 2008 to oversee a rebuilding process for the Reds that included 74-88 and 78-84 finishes in his first two seasons.
However, the Reds have broken through this season as they lead the Cardinals by ½-game in the National League Central standings. Baker's wait for a pennant race pales in comparison to how long Reds fans have been pining for important games this late in the season, though. The Reds have not had a winning season since 2000 and have not been to the postseason since winning the first-ever NL Central title in 1995 after Major League Baseball realigned into three divisions in both leagues.
"I've been here five years and it seems like it's taken forever for us to reach this point," right-hander Bronson Arroyo said. "I can't imagine what it must feel like for the fans."
Reds fans responded, as all three games of last weekend's series with the Braves sold out at Great American Ball Park. Baker said the atmosphere reminded him of the days of the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, when he would come to Riverfront Stadium as a visiting player with the Braves and Dodgers.
"Everywhere you'd go in town people would be wearing red and white," Baker said. "You'd be half-psyched out before you even got to the ballpark because of how great the fans were in Cincinnati. We're getting back to that again. People are wearing their red and white again. It's fun for the fans and for us as a team to see the people so excited. I'm a football guy. I love the NFL, but it's nice that it's August in Cincinnati and people are still talking about the Reds instead of the Bengals. Football season will be here soon enough. It's good that baseball season still means something this year."
While the Reds have been on one of baseball's surprise teams, they are actually a year behind Baker's schedule. He felt they had a chance to contend last year, but a series of early-season injuries helped knock them out of contention. The Reds, though, did win 27 of their final 40 games and second baseman Brandon Phillips believes the groundwork was laid for 2010.
"I was telling people at the end of last season that we were going to win the National League Central this year and a lot of them would look at me like I was crazy," Phillips said. "But you could feel something good was building. We ended last year feeling really good about ourselves, believing we were good enough to win."
There is nothing seemingly fluky about the Reds. They are second in the NL in runs scored with an average of 4.87 runs a game, sixth in runs allowed at 4.17, and third in defensive efficiency with a .708 mark.
"I know there are people who are still skeptical about us hanging in the race because we don't have a track record," Arroyo said. "That's understandable, but we're here to stay. We're not going away. We've got a good team."
The Reds did not make any trades before last Saturday's non-waiver deadline, though general manager Walt Jocketty said he was close on a couple of deals. Baker says he is very content to go with the roster that has brought the Reds this far.
"You always want better but you never heard me complain and say, 'Give me this or give me that,' because, whether it's true or false, I always think I can do well with what I have," Baker said. "That's part of the challenge of managing. I challenge myself to try and get the most from who I have. If you talk about how unhappy you are with what you've got and (say), 'Go get some more,' then if it doesn't happen, I've got to turn around and tell those guys out there, 'Come on, boys, let's get together and give me all you've got.' What expletives would they say behind my back?"
There are no ill feelings in the Reds' clubhouse. In fact, they could get used to making contending an annual occurrence.
"This is why I came here, to help this franchise win again," Baker said. "I'm excited to see this thing through over the next few years. I want to see what happens. Heck, I wish it would have happened right away. You want to rush it, but you can't."
It is highly doubtful Buck Showalter will be able to rush things in his new job as Orioles manager despite being a turnaround artist in his three previous runs as a skipper with the Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Rangers. However, Showalter, who made his Orioles debut Tuesday night with a 6-3 victory over the Angels, does believe the foundation is in place for the Orioles to be successful despite having the worst record in the major leagues.
"Because a club has struggled for so long, everyone thinks everything there is bad," Showalter said. "That's not the case here. There are a lot of good things, and I've done my homework."
Showalter had been an analyst with ESPN since being fired by the Rangers following the 2006 season. He believes his time working in television enabled him to objectively look at the Orioles' situation and also rekindle his desire to manage.
The Orioles present some great challenges, notably that they are 33-73 and have had 12 consecutive losing seasons. However, Showalter sees opportunity in a roster dotted with players 27 or younger.
"You're looking for 25 nuggets," Showalter said. "When you get 25 nuggets, you get to play in October. It's got to be a product of everybody."
Ned Yost understands the feeling of rebuilding, taking over as the Royals' interim manager on May 13. Royals ownership is so happy with the job Yost has done that, lost amidst the flurry of deadline trades last weekend, they removed the interim from his title and gave him a contract through 2012.
"Ned has tremendous baseball intellect," Royals GM Dayton Moore said. "He's an outstanding human being. He's a great character person. He's got a lot of energy. I like his style. He has a great understanding of the rhythm and pace of a major-league season. He understands what we are trying to do in Kansas City. He's been through it twice. That's very important."
Yost became the Brewers' manager after they lost 106 games in 2002. By the time he was fired in September 2008, the Brewers were 83-67 on their way to their first post-season appearance in 26 years.
The Royals have not been to the postseason since winning the 1985 World Series and have produced only one winning season since 1994. While the Royals are 45-61 and tied for last place in the American League Central, they have gone 33-38 since Yost replaced Trey Hillman.
"Soon as I got here this spring, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Yost, who joined the organization as a special assistant to Moore last winter. "This is my type of deal here. I like this. I like building. I like helping an organization when it's struggling at the bottom. And this organization is not at the bottom. It's at the tip of the iceberg. What's below the water level is our player development, our scouting department, our prospects we have in the minor-league system."
That the Mets stood pat at the trading deadline could be seen as a clear sign that they have given up on making the postseason this year. However, GM Omar Minaya says that is not the case and that he did not make a major trade because he did not want to part with such young players as left-hander Jon Niese, reliever Bobby Parnell, catcher Josh Thole, and first baseman Ike Davis.
"The fact that other teams made moves in the division, that's fine," Minaya said. "But I still believe we have a good team and I still believe with this team that we have here we're still going to continue to win some games. Some of our moves were guys like a (Carlos) Beltran coming back, like a (Luis) Castillo coming back."
Of course, it's hard to fault Minaya for not making a trade, especially when the Mets' financial woes are also factored in. The Mets are a longshot to get to the postseason as they are in third place in the NL East, 6 ½ games behind the division-leading Braves.
"I think you have to be careful," Minaya said of trading away the future when the odds of making the playoffs are slim. "Hey, look, my hope, I think we're going to be in this, but the bottom line is this is a team that can get hot. This is a team that can win eight or 10 in a row, and I believe we'll have a run like that."
The Mets players also insist they are not giving up.
"We're confident. I'm confident," left-hander Johan Santana said. "We've just got to win, just go to win series. That's the way we'll gain ground. That's our mentality. Definitely at this point every win is important."
Manager Jerry Manuel, though, is more of a realist. He knows the Mets have a tough road ahead if they are going to end their four-year playoff drought.
"Where we are now in the way that we're playing, if we continue to play that way, the standings don't matter," Manuel said. "So we have to do two things: We have to right the ship and then we have to look at the standings. We played good baseball for a long period of time earlier in the season, but we haven't played good baseball recently. That's what we've got to get back to doing. First, we've got to get back to playing good baseball. That will give us the confidence to be able to come in and feel like we can win series and win games. We've got to get that back first."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu's job status is so shaky that there is a school of thought that he may not make it through the end of the week. … Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly and Padres bench coach Ted Simmons are both going to get their first managerial experience in the Arizona Fall League. Mattingly is expected to succeed Joe Torre if he steps down as Dodgers manager after this season and Simmons has been mentioned as a possibility for the Marlins' manager job. … While Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson is the latest player to reach the major leagues and make an impact as he beat the Twins in his major-league debut on Monday night, a number of other prospects might also be thrown into the pennant race in the season's finale two months, including Reds left-handed reliever Aroldis Chapman, Rangers right-handed reliever Tanner Scheppers, Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings and Braves left-hander Mike Minor. All four will likely be on their team's post-season rosters if they make it that far.
Scouts' takes on various major-league players:
Red Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre: "He's playing the way he was supposed to be playing his whole career—hitting the hell out of the ball and making great plays on defense. I think good health is part of it and I think getting into a baseball-crazy situation like Boston has really perked him up."
Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton: "His velocity has been inconsistent all year and he's really been pitching tentatively the last month or so. The Dodgers are thin in the bullpen to begin with, and they've got to have him right for the stretch run to have any chance of making the playoffs."
Rockies center fielder Carlos Gonzalez: "Graceful is the word I would use to describe him. He is just so smooth in everything he does—hitting, fielding, and running the bases. He's really beginning to blossom into a superstar."
Reds outfielder Chris Heisey: "He's the kind of guy who grows on you. He won't blow you away with tools, but he hits. Even though he is a rookie, he's going to help the Reds in the pennant race."
Pirates right-hander James McDonald: "I think this kid might blossom now that he's out of Los Angeles, where he had the pressure of being the hometown kid. He's got good stuff and now he can relax and figure out how to use it."
Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki: "He really looks beaten down by the losing in Seattle. Last year, when the Mariners were winning, it was the first time he ever seemed like he was truly having fun since he came to the United States (in 2001). Now, he looks like he's ready for the season to end."
Interesting stories from newspapers across the United States:
Jennifer Floyd Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram writes that Mark Cuban would never treat Mavericks fans the way he is treating Rangers fans.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes that Cardinals fans need to give the Jake Westbrook trade a chance. The Post-Dispatch's Joe Strauss writes that Ryan Ludwick was frustrated before the Cardinals traded him to the Padres.
Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe writes that the Red Sox' situation has reached critical mass.
T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times writes that the Dodgers' only passion these days comes from the third-base coach's box.
Three series to watch with probable pitchers and all times Eastern:
Giants (62-45) at Braves (60-46), Thursday-Sunday August 5-8
Tim Lincecum vs. Jair Jurrjens, 7:10 p.m.; Barry Zito vs. Tommy Hanson, 7:35 p.m.; Matt Cain vs. Tim Hudson, 7:10 p.m.; Jonathan Sanchez vs. Derek Lowe, 1:35 p.m.
Red Sox (61-46) at Yankees (66-40), Friday-Monday August 6-9
Clay Buchholz vs. Javier Vazquez, 7:05 p.m.; John Lackey vs. CC Sabathia, 4:10 p.m..; Josh Beckett vs. A.J. Burnett, 8:05 p.m.; Jon Lester vs. Dustin Moseley, 2:05 p.m.