Monday, September 20, 1999

Scoreboard doesn't lie in pennant race

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PITTSBURGH — The scoreboard truths played out all afternoon. The Mets were up four runs, then down two, then up two. Houston trailed by a run, then went ahead by the same margin. Pennant races are measured inning by inning, tracked by blinking lights beyond outfield fences.

        At Three Rivers Stadium, they appeared just above the wall in left, New York rallying, Houston rallying, the Reds falling precipitously to the Pirates. What was hope after Saturday's games became desperation by Sunday at 5.

        Mets 8, Phillies 6.

        Astros 4, Cardinals 3.

        Pirates 8, Reds 5.

        Are the Reds done? Maybe. Possibly. The math isn't promising. Cincinnati's odds aren't good. But hey, when were they ever?

        In basebucks '99, money talks and a $33 million payroll walks.

        “There's still time,” Aaron Boone said. “We just need to get on a little roll. Things can change real quick.”

        A great thing about baseball is, 162 games don't lie. You can hide a weakness for a day, a week or a month. But not for a season. Across an entire summer, truth is revealed.

        For the Reds, truth is chasing Houston — a team with two 20-game winners — with a starting pitching staff of hope, wishes and courage.

Consolation prizes
        Courage is Pete Harnisch. Harnisch, so stout for so long, wasn't Sunday. “I wasn't any good, simple as that,” he said.

        Harnisch gives it what he has, and mostly that has been good enough. But he threw 40 pitches in the first inning Sunday and 39 more in the third. For a man with a bad shoulder, that's too many throws, too quickly. Harnisch left after three innings, down 5-2, “and that was pretty much the game,” he admitted.

        It's almost time to pass out the consolation prizes. Jack McKeon isn't saying that. Not directly, anyway. But his hints are getting close.

        “You've got to admire all these guys, the way they've battled,” the manager said. “We're thankful for what we've gotten” from Harnisch. “Fourteen wins. The guy's got a lot of character. He knows he's not 100 (percent), but he does the best he can. You can't find fault with Pete Harnisch. You just admire the determination he's got.”

        Engrave that on the Reds summer of '99. Thank them for giving you all they had and for making September worth watching. But Sunday may have killed them. Sunday may have done them in.

        Harnisch fought himself from the beginning. He hit Ed Sprague on a 1-2 pitch with the bases loaded in the first. In the third, he allowed consecutive homeruns to Brian Giles and Kevin Young, both no-doubters that left the park faster than the air leaving Cincinnati's pennant balloon.

        “I didn't have a whole lot of stuff. That was pretty apparent, I guess,” Harnisch said.

12 games to play
        The Reds never got closer than two runs after that. Meanwhile, Houston overcame its total-team meltdown of the previous two days to gut out a 4-3 win at St. Louis. Astros center fielder Carl Everett had said Saturday, “People who look back are scared. As long as we do what we're supposed to do, the Reds are not a factor.”

        That seemed highly arrogant Saturday. By Sunday night, it was wise.

        The Reds have lost three of their last four. They trail the Astros by 31/2 games, with 12 to play. The lousy math caused McKeon to recall his first season in baseball.

        “We were six games out with 12 play,” he said. “We figured the only way we could win it was to win 'em all, and we did.”

        That was 1949. McKeon's team forced a one-game playoff, which it lost. “I'd settle for a one-game playoff now,” he said.

        The Reds airplane flew off to San Diego at about 6 Sunday night. Into the sunset, literally and otherwise.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.