Sweep puts postseason back in sight

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Undaunted by distance, oblivious to the odds, Hal Morris continues to cling to the pennant race. As well he should. Believing doesn't cost a ballplayer anything, and it's infinitely better than boredom.

''Playing out the string is the worst,'' the Reds first baseman said Wednesday. ''I've done it before and it's much more fun when you're trying to win ballgames than when you're trying to pad your numbers with two weeks to go.''

The Reds' record says they should be marking time by now, but the standings still demand their full attention. Wednesday's 12-6 victory over the Atlanta Braves moved the water-treading home team just one game over the .500 mark, only one-half game ahead of the dreary Chicago Cubs, but it also completed a three-game sweep of baseball's defending World Champions.

The Reds moved no closer to the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals Wednesday, but they remain in reasonable striking distance, 4 1/2 games behind with 23 to play. For another week, at least, the Reds should continue to play with one eye on the scoreboard, calculating magic numbers and plotting miracles. Cockeyed optimism is holding harsh reality at bay.

''The only thing you can hope for is to get into mid-September with a chance to win,'' said Reds manager Ray Knight. ''And we're there. . . . This series was so crucial because they could have buried us. What we've done is stay alive.''

Erasing the doubts

By any objective standard, the Reds should probably be preoccupied with their off-season pursuits: hunting, fishing, tax-free municipal bonds. Yet their victories may yet get in the way of their vacations. Tom Glavine, whose name might as well be Reds Nemesis, was knocked around Wednesday for eight runs in four innings. Maybe it was a sign.

''I think everybody believed three days ago that we had a chance,'' said Reds second baseman Bret Boone. '' . . . If there was any doubt before, we've shown we can play with anybody out there.''

The Braves might have put the Reds out of their misery this week, and have instead provided them with newfound purpose. Knight probably doesn't have enough starting pitching to sustain a serious stretch drive, but he may have enough bats to bludgeon his way through the Central Division. A baseball club need not be great to reach October anymore, merely competent.

Among the beauties of expansion baseball is that as the divisions proliferate, the dog days dwindle. With 3ï weeks remaining in the regular season, the Detroit Tigers are the only major-league team mathematically eliminated from a wild-card playoff spot.

Hope springs eternal.

''If things go right, we can still win this thing,'' Knight said. ''It's just like (the season is) baiting you. The St. Louis series, they sweep us, and we go to seven games (behind) and you say, 'Hey, we're just about to move a lot of people.' ''

Bridging the gap

That was back on July 17. Two weeks later, Knight's lineup was made meatier by the acquisition of Kevin Mitchell. Wednesday afternoon, nomadic pitcher Mike Morgan showed up for the stretch drive, convinced that a pennant race was still in progress.

''Four games,'' Morgan said, ''is nothing.''

The gap was actually 4 1/2 games as Morgan spoke, but his confusion was understandable. St. Louis had overtaken Houston by half a game Tuesday night. The division is still in a state of flux.

''I'm sure they're aware of where we're at,'' Morris said of the Cardinals and Astros, ''but I would doubt they're extremely concerned. But that could change in the course of three or four games.''

In any case, it's worth finding out. There's no point in conceding the pennant race when the first four teams could reverse their order in the course of a week. No point in playing out the string so long as the pennant remains plausible.

Above Knight's desk at Riverfront Stadium is a message board. It is where he transfers his mental notes to message form. Wednesday afternoon, it carried an important two-word reminder.

''Playoff tickets.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 5, 1996.