Suddenly, sun shines at Riverfront

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Now it can be told. Ray Knight was worried there for a little while. Before the Cincinnati Reds suddenly shifted gears last week - from reverse and into to overdrive - their rookie manager wondered what it would take for a turnaround.

''I became concerned,'' Knight said Friday. ''I wondered, 'Are we going to be the type of team that never wins a close ballgame?' What we've done in the last five games is we've put an exclamation point on, 'Yes, we can win these games.' ''

The rainy season continues at Riverfront Stadium, but the ballpark is lately brightened by relief. A nine-game losing streak has been stopped, and a five-game winning streak was still in progress as the Reds and Padres awaited a break in the weather Friday night. Anxiety has taken a holiday.

You could see it in the faces around the batting cage, and hear it in their animated voices. A team on a long losing streak carries itself with the solemnity of a funeral cortege. Winners walk tall, laugh loud and generally go about their business as if it were spring break.

Reds hitting coach Hal McRae wanted Eddie Taubensee to hit a shot to center field with his last practice swing Friday afternoon. Instead, the catcher hooked a foul drive into the red seats in right field. Somehow, this struck those standing around the batting cage as hilarious.

You had to be there.

A bellyful of knots

A popular myth holds that baseball players handle the emotional ebb and flow of their season better than athletes in other sports. The reality is that their emotions change on a pitch-by-pitch basis.

For every two seconds of action, there are another 20 seconds of anticipation and reflection. Other games leave you breathless. Baseball leaves you with a knot in your stomach.

Knight believed he was in for a bellyful when the Reds broke spring training. He saw that his pitching wasn't quite right, and that his outfield had yet to identify itself. He knew he could count on Barry Larkin and Bret Boone and Hal Morris, and he thought he could rely on Reggie Sanders, but it was fairly evident that there would be places where only the panic button was appropriate.

''I never felt comfortable with my team because of so many things that happened in spring training,'' he said. ''We came into the season with a a lot of question marks. I thought the starting pitching would be outstanding, and it wasn't, and that magnified the bullpen struggling.

''Hector (Carrasco) was wild as he could be, and I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to believe that Mike Kelly was going to struggle defensively. I didn't want to believe Vince Coleman would struggle offensively.''

But when you're in the midst of a nine-game losing streak, a manager has no choice but to face the facts, however unpleasant. Knight and General Manager Jim Bowden deserve credit for correctly diagnosing problem areas and swiftly addressing them. The Reds don't bear much resemblance to the team that left Plant City, but it seems to be finding itself.

Same players, different roles

Just recently, Jeff Branson's position was that of a platoon third baseman. Now he's nudged gritty Chris Sabo to the bench.

Two months ago, Eric Davis seemed an exercise in nostalgia. Today, he looks as if he might have emerged from a time machine.

Eric Anthony opened the season on the disabled list. Now, he's hitting cleanup.

Expansion and salary escalation have put an end to the push-button team. Ballclubs consist increasingly of role players supporting a couple of stars. Sometimes you need to see those players in action awhile before you determine just what those roles are.

If Ray Knight ever locates a leadoff man, and Reggie Sanders' back continues to get better, these Reds may yet contend in the National League's Central Division.

A week ago, the outlook wasn't brilliant. Knight has since stopped worrying.

''We've gotten to the point where we're playing up to our capabilities,'' he said.

The rain persists, but the storm has passed.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published May 11, 1996.