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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.

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