Pitching depth keeps Reds in postseason contention
Unlikely candidates step up after significant injuries to key hurlers in 'pen, rotation
MILWAUKEE -- The Reds' pitching has been remarkable this season, doubly so when you consider the caliber of the Cincinnati pitchers on the disabled list.
The Reds' pitching has been worthy of a postseason team. This is why what happened Friday night, a pitching letdown, was an aberration for this club. Here's closer Aroldis Chapman, who has given up one earned run in 21 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers. He's facing catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who, in five at-bats against Chapman, has managed five strikeouts.
What is likely to happen here? Something other than what actually happens, which is Lucroy hitting a two-run, walk-off home run and the Brewers winning, 7-6. The Reds lost a game and a chance to move into second place in the NL Central. The good news lies only in comparison: this sort of thing is distinctly out of the ordinary for this team.
The Reds entered the weekend fourth in the Major Leagues in team earned run average. For the season, they had only received nine starts from their nominal No. 1 starter, Johnny Cueto, who is currently on his third DL stint of the season. And they have only had 11 appearances from Sean Marshall, one of the leading left-handed setup men in the game, but now out with a shoulder injury.
The bullpen was reinforced earlier this month with the return of hard-throwing setup man Jonathan Broxton from an elbow injury.
"Our [bullpen] guys have been doing a heck of a job," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Knock on wood, they're not walking people. It's a manager's nightmare where you've got to get a guy out and then you walk him. They do the job, they get to feeling good as a unit. Our guys are very confident.
"It was great to get Broxton back, because that's a big piece at the end there. You've got not only a setup man, but a closer on days when Chapman isn't [available].
"We've really monitored Chapman and the rest of the guys in the bullpen closely so they'll be strong and healthy."
What occurs on a team with successful pitching throughout its staff is a situation in which one area reinforces the other. In this case, the Cincinnati starters are consistently absorbing enough innings, thus taking pressure off the bullpen.
"The starting pitching, No. 1, has been great and that makes it so the [bullpen] guys aren't over-pitched," Baker said. "And we can match up with who you want to as opposed to who's rested. Sometimes you're matching up on who's rested, whether you like the matchup or not."
A breakthrough performer in the Reds bullpen has been lefty Manny Parra. He pitched for the Brewers over parts of five seasons, primarily as a starter. His stuff was never in question, but his success was never more than intermittent. Parra, now 30, is pitching well in crucial situations for the Reds. In 32 2/3 innings, he has walked nine and struck out 44. What's the difference?
"I think confidence," Baker said. "The better he did, the more important positions we put him in. And when [Sean] Marshall went down, he was the man. And I think Marshall has had a lot to do with helping him, [pitching coach] Bryan Price has had a lot to do with helping him and part of my job is to show confidence and instill confidence in him.
"You know, he's figured out when to throw his fastball, when to throw two or three different speeds on his breaking ball, which is what real, real good lefties do. I remember talking to him about Sparky Lyle, who had like three pitches off his one breaking ball; a sweeper, a sharp one and then another downer. He's worked at it and we've tried to match him up."
Parra pitched in the seventh and eighth innings Friday night, allowing a walk and getting a strikeout against two right-handed batters, then retiring two left-handed hitters on routine flies to left.
The absence of Cueto has been relatively painless because of the performance of Tony Cingrani, a 24-year-old lefty. In his eight starts since Cueto most recently went on the disabled list, Cingrani has a 2.12 ERA.
"We'd be up the creek without him," Baker said.
When it was suggested that Cingrani might require some rest during the remainder of the season to limit his innings, the manager responded:
"How you going to rest him during the pennant race? Who do you have to take his place? Everybody talks about rest, but then everybody talks about winning at the same time. They don't match."
The Reds aren't much for excuses, in any case. Injuries can't be used that way. Inadequate performances can't be rationalized.
There is, Baker says, no "sniveling or whining or crying" allowed. "I don't take kindly to complaining," the manager says.
And that was one reason why the common theme in the Cincinnati clubhouse Friday night after a difficult defeat was: "We'll get 'em tomorrow."
The recent record says that the Reds, between their confidence and their pitching, will do exactly that.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.