Billy Hamilton stealing bases, spotlight

With apologies to Jay Bruce, who certainly had a very impressive 3-game series in Houston, Billy Hamilton has been the engine that has sparked the Cincinnati Reds as they continue to move closer to clinching another playoff berth.

We’ll get to Bruce in a moment, but Billy Hamilton’s recent play has removed any question as to whether he should be selected for the Reds’ postseason roster. There is no decision to be made now, as no reasonable human could possibly even think about leaving him at home while the team tries to capture a world championship.

Billy Hamilton

Hamiltion made his Major League debut on September 3 against the Cardinals, entering a scoreless game as a pinch-runner in the 7th inning after Ryan Ludwick singled. Hamilton promptly stole second base off Yadier Molina and then scored on a Todd Frazier double. It would be the only run of the game as the Reds won 1-0.

The next day, Hamilton again entered as a pinch-runner after a Ryan Ludwick single, this time in the bottom of the 14th inning with the Reds trailing by a run. Again, Hamilton stole second base off Molina and then scored on a Zack Cozart single to keep the Reds alive. The Cardinals, however,  would go on to win 5-4 in 16 innings.

Hamilton added another stolen base as a pinch-runner on September 6 against the Dodgers. The next day, with the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 10th, Hamilton again replaced Ludwick, who had drawn a leadoff walk. Right on cue, Hamilton stole second base and then scored the game-ending winning run on a Todd Frazier single.

At this point, Hamilton had appeared in four games, stolen four bases, and scored three runs, with two of those being game-winning runs and the other a game-tying run in extra innings – and he had 0 plate appearances! All this was as a pinch runner. As noted here by ESPN (last paragraph of the article), the Elias Sports Bureau reports Hamilton is the first player in the modern era (since 1900) to record a stolen base in each of his first four major league games.

Hamilton would appear in three more games, drawing a few plate appearances but no hits, before he made his first Major League start Wednesday night at Houston. With the Astros hosting this interleague game as the American League team, the designated hitter rule was in effect, creating an extra spot in the lineup for a position player. This was the last game of a three-game series against the worst team in baseball, and the Reds had won the first two handily. Dusty Baker decided to start Hamilton in center field and move Shin-Soo Choo to left field, batting Hamilton 9th in the order, just ahead of Choo in his customary leadoff spot. Needless to say, the move paid off.

Hamiton went 3-for-4 with two walks, two runs scored, and four stolen bases (the fourth coming on a pitchout) in a 13-inning, 6-5 victory for the Reds. As noted here by Yahoo!, the Elias Sports Bureau reports Hamilton is the first player in the “live ball era” (since 1920) to steal four bases in his first start.

As if that weren’t enough, Hamilton also had an impact in last night’s improbable come-from-behind victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the first of 6 meetings the Reds will have against the Pirates in their last 9 games of the regular season. The Reds entered the 9th inning trailing 5-2 but scored three runs in the 9th to tie the game before Joey Votto’s home run in the top of the 10th gave the Reds a 6-5 lead, which Aroldis Chapman would secure for his 38th save.

With Pittsburgh leading 5-2 in the bottom of the 9th with two outs and a runner on second, shortstop Jordy Mercer committed a costly throwing error on a Todd Frazier ground ball that would have won the game for Pittsburgh. Ryan Ludwick scored on the play and Frazier advanced to second. Zack Cozart then singled, moving Frazier to third. Down to his last out and facing a two-run deficit with the go-ahead run at the plate, this is not a situation in which Dusty Baker would normally call on a runner to attempt to steal second base. If it doesn’t work, you’ve essentially run yourself out of the rally and lost the game. However, with Devin Mesoraco at the plate, Baker decided to replace Cozart with Hamilton, who promptly stole second base, giving him 10 stolen bases in 10 attempts on the season. Mesoraco worked a nine-pitch at-bat off Mark Melancon into a sharp infield single off the glove of third baseman Pedro Alvarez, scoring both Frazier and Hamilton to tie the game 5-5, setting the stage for Votto’s go-ahead home run in the 10th.

Just to highlight the impact Hamilton is having on the ball club, check out this video of the entire 9th-inning rally, and look at the way his teammates react and greet him in the dugout near the end of the video.

Hamilton has now appeared in 9 games, going 3-for-8 at the plate while scoring 7 runs and stealing 10 bases in 10 attempts.

To reiterate, there is no discussion about Hamilton’s place on the Reds’ postseason roster. The only question now is…should he start or continue to play mostly off the bench?

I mentioned I would give Jay Bruce his due for that Houston series. Here are Bruce’s numbers for those three games: 7-for-13, 3 doubles, 1 home run (a grand slam), 10 RBI, 3 walks, 0 strikeouts, and 4 runs scored. His grand slam in the second game of the series, a 10-0 victory for Cincinnati, game him exactly 30 home runs and 100 RBI on the season. He had 5 RBI in that game. In the last game of the series (the game in which Billy Hamilton started and stole four bases), Bruce hit three doubles, the last of which came with the bases loaded, breaking a tie in the 13th inning and giving the Reds a 6-4 lead that they would hang on to in a 6-5 win.

Jay Bruce

Bruce now leads the Reds with 103 RBIs, two ahead of Brandon Phillips, who has settled back into the # 2 hole in the lineup. Speaking of which, it’s looking like the # 2 spot in the order is less of a concern these days. That is the traditional spot for Brandon Phillips, and the Reds are doing well him him there. But with Zack Cozart continuing to produce and with Todd Frazier stepping up his offense as well, I think the Reds should be ok with whatever Dusty decides to do with the lineup.

The pitching situation, in terms of choosing the starters for the postseason roster, is as murky as ever with Johnny Cueto back in the fold and Mike Leake pitching well again. Cueto started for the first time since June when he faced Houston in the series opener on Monday. He earned the win, going 5 innings and striking out 5 batters in a 6-1 Reds victory. Leake has been every bit as good as Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo this year, and you could definitely make a case that he’s been the Reds’ best starter. His stats are almost identical to those of Mat Latos, with the only exception being that Latos has a lot more strikeouts. Tony Cingrani is still not ready to rejoin the rotation, as he continues to recover from back spasms. It’s almost impossible to choose which four (or five) of these guys should start in the postseason. But the good news is that the Reds should feel comfortable with any of the six taking the mound. The starting pitchers have been the strength of the team all season long.

Last night’s thrilling victory over the Pirates moved the Reds into a tie with the Pirates for second place in the NL Central, with both teams posting an identical 88-66 record. St. Louis won in extra innings last night, and they currently hold a 2-game lead in the division, with a record of 90-64. With 8 games remaining, the Reds would love to catch the Cardinals and win the division, because the division winner will avoid the dreaded one-game wild card playoff. The Washington Nationals are currently 5 games behind Cincinnati and Pittsburgh for the second wild card spot, so their chances of making the postseason are miniscule. Here are the full standings.

Last night’s game provided more drama in the rivalry between the Reds and Pirates. The Reds will be riding a 4-game winning streak as they play at Pittsburgh tonight in the second game of a three-game series. Then they return home to Cincinnati for three games against the Mets and three more against the Pirates to close out the regular season.


Taking a look at the Cincinnati Reds as we head toward the postseason

The 2013 Major League Baseball regular season is coming to an end, and once again it is an exciting time to be a Cincinnati Reds fan. The Reds have been among the best teams in the National League for the past few years but have failed to win a playoff series during their run.

Recent History

In 2010, the Reds finished 91-71, winning the National League Central by 5 games over the Cardinals. Joey Votto was named National League MVP. However, the Reds were swept by the Phillies in the division series. Roy Halladay pitched a no-hitter in Game 1. Cincinnati blew a 4-0 lead in Game 2, committing 4 errors in the game.

The Reds took a step backward in 2011, finishing 79-83, third place in the Central.

In 2012, the Reds finished 97-65 and again won the division, this time by 9 games over the Cardinals. After taking the first two games on the road in a best-of-five division series against the Giants, the Reds inexplicably came home to Cincinnati and lost three in a row to the eventual World Series champs. Johnny Cueto suffered an injury early in Game 1, forcing Mat Latos to move up and pitch 4 innings to help the Reds win the game. Cincinnati beat San Francisco 9-0 in Game 2, moving the series back to Cincinnati, where the Reds needed only to win 1 of 3 to advance to the NLCS. A fantastic start by Homer Bailey was wasted in Game 3 as the Reds fell 2-1 in 10 innings. After losing Game 4, the Reds sent Mat Latos to the mound for Game 5. It all fell apart in the 5th inning, culminating in Buster Posey’s grand slam to give the Giants a 6-0 lead that they would not relinquish.

Dusty Baker’s Playoff Woes

If the 2010 and 2012 postseason losses seem awfully hard to swallow for Reds fans, consider what else manager Dusty Baker has endured during his long tenure as a Major League manager:

In 2002, Baker’s San Francisco Giants, led by Barry Bonds, faced the Anaheim Angels in the World Series. With the series tied at 2 games apiece, the Giants destroyed the Angels in Game 5 by a score of 16-4 to take a 3-2 series lead. In Game 6, with a chance to become World Champions, the Giants had a 5-0 lead in the 7th inning and lost. The Angels made a ferocious rally and won the game 6-5. The Giants also held a 1-0 lead in Game 7 but lost 4-1.

The very next year, Dusty Baker found himself managing the Chicago Cubs, and they won the NL Central. After winning their first-round playoff series, the Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. Chicago went into Game 6 holding a 3-2 series lead, just one victory away from their first trip to the World Series since 1945. The Cubs led 3-0 in the 8th inning of Game 6 when the infamous Steve Bartman incident happened. The Marlins would score 8 runs in the inning and go on to win the game 8-3. The Cubs led 5-3 in Game 7 before Florida came back and won 9-6.

To recap, Dusty Baker has lived through these nightmares:

  • 2002 Giants – Led World Series against Angels 3 games to 2, led 5-0 in 7th inning of Game 6, lost in 7
  • 2003 Cubs – Led NLCS against Marlins 3 games to 2, led 3-0 in 8th inning of Game 6 (Bartman), lost in 7
  • 2010 Reds – No-hit by Halladay in NLDS Game 1, committed 4 errors in Game 2, swept by Phillies
  • 2012 Reds – Won first 2 NLDS games on the road, then lost 3 at home, Giants won series in 5

In fact, Dusty Baker’s bad luck as a manager started way back in his first season as a Major League skipper in 1993. Dusty took over the San Francisco Giants that year, and he was joined in San Francisco by Barry Bonds, who had signed with the Giants as a free agent during the offseason after spending the first 7 years of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dusty, Barry, and company finished with a phenomenal record of 103-59. So what was the problem? Despite finishing with the second-best record in all of baseball, the Giants did not make the playoffs that year. Atlanta won the NL West by 1 game, finishing 104-58, and 1993 was the last year with no wild card, so the Giants had to sit at home and watch three teams with worse records play in the playoffs. This was the year of the famous Joe Carter home run off Mitch Williams to win the World Series for Toronto over Philadelphia. Toronto was 95-67 during the regular season and Philadelphia was 97-65.

I have a love-hate relationship with Dusty Baker. I really like the guy, but he drives me crazy with a lot of his decisions. However, it seems like for whatever reason he has been hit with the worst luck EVER in the playoffs. There’s simply no way one man can be responsible for all the events listed above. Hopefully Dusty will reach the top of the mountain this year. He has certainly waited long enough!

Team Overview

The 2013 Cincinnati Reds have been a successful team, but they just haven’t quite put it all together yet. The Reds are in a dogfight with St. Louis and Pittsburgh for first place in the NL Central, and it looks like the battle will continue through the end of the season. Winning the division is extremely important, as baseball’s playoff format rewards all three division winners with an automatic entry into the division series, while the two wild-card teams must play a 1-game playoff to determine the other division series representative. Nobody wants to play 162 games and then be sent home after just one playoff game! So those three teams will be doing all they can to win the division. The Reds currently have a nice lead for the second wild card spot, so it looks like the NL Central will send three teams to the playoffs, with two of those meeting in the wild card game.

Starting pitching has been the biggest strength of the Reds this season, as their starters have the second-best E.R.A. in the National League. For the majority of the season, it hasn’t really mattered which starter the Reds threw out there, as they have all proven capable of getting the job done. Mat Latos has separated himself from the pack to become the clear ace. Latos throws hard, strikes people out, and lasts deep into games. Homer Bailey threw his 2nd no-hitter in July and is capable of dominating any time he takes the mound. Bronson Arroyo has been as steady as ever, throwing everything including the kitchen sink, eating up innings, and winning games. Mike Leake has made a huge jump this season to become another dependable starter. Tony Cingrani has exceeded all expectations after filling in for Johnny Cueto, who has been injured almost all season.

The bullpen has also been an asset for the Reds. Despite injuries to Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall, the Reds’ pen has still performed well. Although not as steady as the starters, the bullpen has mostly been very dependable. Other than a coupe brief spells fueled by wildness, Aroldis Chapman has been dominant in the closer role. After rough starts to the season, J.J. Hoover and Manny Parra both had long scoreless streaks and are dependable setup men. Sam LeCure has also been a lights-out reliever.

Overall, the Reds’ pitching staff leads the National League in strikeouts and ranks third in E.R.A. behind Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Cueto and Marshall could be back in time for the playoffs, which could make for some tough decisions regarding the postseason roster, which I will get into shortly.

Although the Reds’ offense hasn’t been bad, it hasn’t been as good as their pitching. Cincinnati brought in Shin-Soo Choo during the offseason, and he has been fantastic in the leadoff role. Choo and Joey Votto have been at the top of the National League all season long in on-base percentage and walks. Votto hasn’t hit for as much power as he did a couple years ago, but he’s still reaching base at an incredible rate. An opening day shoulder injury to Ryan Ludwick sidelined him for months and moved Brandon Phillips to the cleanup spot, and he has delivered, producing over 100 RBI on the year. Jay Bruce has had another Jay Bruce season, hitting for lots of power, striking out a lot, and having some crazy hot streaks. Ludwick has returned from injury, and anything he can give the Reds would be considered a plus.

The rest of the Reds lineup has been mostly ineffective. Todd Frazier went through a horrible slump a few weeks ago, but he is still a good young talent. Zack Cozart was terrible at the plate almost all season, but he has actually been the Reds’ best hitter over the past month. Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco have handled the catching duties. Mesoraco has grown a lot this season behind the plate and as a hitter, while Hanigan has continued to be a gritty performer.

Billy Hamilton made his Major League debut earlier this month, and he’s already made a difference, helping the Reds win games with his late-inning pinch-running base-stealing heroics.

Defensively, the Reds again rank near the top of the National League. Brandon Phillips routinely makes highlight plays at second base. Jay Bruce has a great arm in right field. Shin-Soo Choo has been a pleasant surprise in center field, both in terms of playing smart and having a strong arm. Joey Votto is capable of playing a good first base, but he has committed a high number of errors this season.

In order for the Reds to go deep into the postseason, their pitching needs to continue to be as steady as it has been all year, but they are going to have to do more with their bats. Los Angeles, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh are all tough opponents with outstanding pitching staffs.

Playoff Roster

The Reds will face some tough decisions when it comes time to set their 25-man playoff roster. Here is where they stand (R=Right-handed, L=Left-handed, S = Switch hitter):

STARTING PITCHERS:

Mat Latos, R
Homer Bailey, R
Bronson Arroyo, R
Mike Leake, R
Tony Cingrani, L
Johnny Cueto, R

Teams typically use only 4 starters in the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see what the Reds do here because all 5 guys (I’m excluding Cueto here because he has been injured most of the year) have been really good. My guess is that Dusty will choose to have 4 starters instead of 5, with the odd man out being Leake or Cingrani. Leake has hit a rough patch lately, and Cingrani has been dealing with an injury. If Cingrani can’t get healthy in time, the decision is easy. If he does, I think he might get the nod because he’s the only lefty in the entire group. Leake would likely still make the roster as a relief pitcher, although that is not a guarantee because he is not used to that role. Cingrani has pitched in relief this year when Cueto was healthy. Cueto, of course, is a starter, but he will almost certainly move to a bullpen role for the postseason if he is healthy.

RELIEF PITCHERS:

Aroldis Chapman, L
Sam LeCure, R
Manny Parra, L
J.J. Hoover, R
Alfredo Simon, R
Sean Marshall, L
Zach Duke, L
Logan Ondrusek, R

Chapman, LeCure, Parra, and Hoover are locks for the postseason roster. Marshall and Cueto are locks if healthy. With the possibility that Cueto and the fifth starter will be moved to the bullpen, there might not be as many spots available for the regular relievers.

Teams usually carry 11 or 12 pitchers on their roster for the postseason, so of the 14 guys listed here, 2 or 3 won’t make it.

Locks (8): Latos, Bailey, Arroyo, 1 of Leake or Cingrani, Chapman, LeCure, Parra, Hoover
Locks if healthy (2): Cueto, Marshall
Next up, in order of likelihood (4): Simon, 1 of Leake or Cingrani, Duke, Ondrusek
Only in case of emergency (2): Partch, Reynolds

Alfredo Simon could find himself on the chopping block depending on how the Leake/Cingrani/Cueto/Marshall situation unfolds. Zach Duke has been good in a Reds uniform, but I would be surprised if he makes the postseason roster. If Marshall cannot play, though, Duke might make it as a lefty. I don’t see Logan Ondrusek making the roster unless both Cueto and Marshall can’t pitch AND Dusty decides to carry 12 pitchers. That scenario is extremely unlikely. Curtis Partch and Greg Reynolds are probably next in line if somehow it gets that far.

INFIELDERS:

Joey Votto, L
Brandon Phillips, R
Todd Frazier, R
Zack Cozart, R
Cesar Izturis, S
Jack Hannahan, L

CATCHERS:

Ryan Hanigan, R
Devin Mesoraco, R
Corky Miller, R

OUTFIELDERS:

Ryan Ludwick, R
Shin-Soo Choo, L
Jay Bruce, L
Chris Heisey, R
Xavier Paul, L
Billy Hamilton, S
Derrick Robinson, S

The only real question here is whether or not Billy Hamilton will be on the Reds’ postseason roster. I don’t see how Dusty Baker could leave him off the roster because he has a skill that can win baseball games with his ability to steal bases like no one else. His speed and base-stealing ability are too valuable to leave at home with the game on the line.

The 9 absolute locks are the regular starters, which includes both catchers because they play interchangeably. The rest of the guys will just fall into place.

Locks (9): Votto, Phillips, Frazier, Cozart, Ludwick, Choo, Bruce, Hanigan, Mesoraco
Next up, in order of likelihood (7): Hamilton, Izturis, Hannahan, Heisey, Paul, Robinson, Miller

This is what my 25-man roster would look like if I were able to choose it:

Pitchers (11): Latos, Bailey, Arroyo, Cingrani, Leake, Chapman, LeCure, Parra, Hoover, Cueto*, Marshall*

*Alfredo Simon and Zach Duke would be my next two pitchers up if Cueto and/or Marshall are unable to come back.

Position Players (14): Votto, Phillips, Frazier, Cozart, Ludwick, Choo, Bruce, Hanigan, Mesoraco, Hamilton, Izturis, Hannahan, Heisey, Paul

The other big question Dusty Baker faces for the postseason is what to do with the # 2 spot in the lineup. This spot in between Choo and Votto has been very unproductive for the Reds all year. Brandon Phillips was there just one day and was then moved to the cleanup spot to replace Ludwick. Zack Cozart struggled there early on but has thrived hitting down in the order. If I’m Dusty Baker, I would probably try Cozart back in the 2 hole for the playoffs now that he is hitting well because Phillips has thrived in the cleanup role this season. This would make every spot from 1-6 in the lineup alternate lefty/righty and would put Ludwick in the 6 hole, where there is not as much pressure.

To recap, here are the big decisions for Dusty Baker heading into the postseason:

  • Include Billy Hamilton on the postseason roster?
  • Who hits in the # 2 spot?
  • What to do with the 4th/5th starters?
  • Will Cueto and/or Marshall be ready?

The Reds have 15 games left in the season, 6 of which are against Pittsburgh. Those games against the Pirates will obviously go a long way toward determining how things shake out in the division. The Reds did a great job in winning 3 of 4 from the Cardinals and then sweeping a 3-game series against the Dodgers. They lost their first two games against the Cubs but won today’s game to close out the series. It will be really interesting to see how the rest of the season unfolds and to see if the Reds can finally break through and make a deep playoff run or, better yet, bring home their first World Championship since 1990.


Monday Morning Quarterback for July 15th, 2013

Monday Morning Quarterback is a term used by many, so this is not an original title, but I am going to use it anyway for the title of my weekly sports happenings blog of the past week in sports.

Major League Baseball has entered it’s “Unofficial” half way point of the season with its All-Star Break.  This year’s All Star Game will take place at Citi Field in New York City, home of the New York Mets.  The winning team’s league will get home filed advantage during the World Series in October.

Major League Baseball Logo

If the season ended today, here would be the playoff teams from each League:

AL East Champ      Boston

AL Central Champ  Detroit

AL West Champ     Oakland

AL Wild Card          Tampa Bay and Texas

NL East Champ      Atlanta

NL Central Champ  St. Louis

NL West Champ     Arizona

NL Wild Card          Pittsburgh and Cincinnati

Of course, anything can happen in the final two and half months of the season.  Atlanta has the largest lead of any of the Division leaders with a 6 game lead over Washington.  Many other teams out there have the chance to get to the post season.  It should be great to watch as the regular season nears its end!!

Back on March 30th, I had my MLB Preview of the Steve Black Show with Matt Mahony, Scott Cummings and Donney Jackson.  Check out the broadcast and see how their playoff picks are stacking up so far.

 


Good Monday to you all!!!