CLEVELAND - Barry Larkin left the clubhouse on crutches, his left leg in a cast, his ballclub in a bind.
So long as their wounded shortstop could will himself to play, the Cincinnati Reds could persuade themselves they might still make a run in the National League Central. They could study the standings and see room for advancement, and time for every purpose under heaven.
They can see more clearly now, and the picture is not pretty. Losing Larkin robs the Reds of their best player, their captain, and also their illusions. Because early estimates indicate Larkin may miss up to six weeks because of the strained left calf he suffered Monday night, it is no longer premature to write off the season as a lost cause.
It may be prudent, in fact, for General Manager Jim Bowden to face the hard facts and start trading some of his costly veterans for prospects. This is a development Ray Knight dreads, but one he can no longer dismiss.
"I know there comes a time when he (Bowden) will make the determination that it's nothing but an uphill climb, that instead of a hill it's Mount Everest," the Reds manager said before Tuesday's 5-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians. "I thank him and applaud him for not making a move yet, because it was looking so bleak early.
"You go into a war with 1,000 men and you're up against 1,000 men and then all of a sudden you're down to 700 and 500. You can't keep taking away from a group and expect it to be competitive."
With Barry Larkin at full strength, the Reds are a below-average outfit. With Larkin on one good leg, they have been last in baseball's lousiest division. Without him, they are an expansion team.
Get 'em next year
The visitors clubhouse at Jacobs Field was deep in stiff upper lips Tuesday afternoon, but short on real conviction. As Larkin joins Jeff Brantley and Reggie Sanders as former All-Stars on the disabled list, the Reds are fast approaching Triple-A anonymity.
"You can easily be more complacent when you've lost Brantley and Barry and Reggie and just concede the year," said Joe Oliver, the catcher. "But you've got to go out there and try to grow up and be a better player through the adversity. It makes a lot of players focus and contribute more and learn how to be team players instead of worrying about trying to play for themselves."
It makes some players start planning their October vacations in June.
The Reds can not hope to replace a player of Larkin's stature. They can only hope to avoid humiliation in the weeks without him. Knight's starting lineup Tuesday night featured the immortal Brook Fordyce as designated hitter, and included no player who had driven in more than 19 runs all season.
"There's a big gap in our four-hole when Barry's not there," said Knight, who could have said the same of his three-hole or his five-hole. "As our talent dwindles because of injury, our execution has to be almost perfect. We can't give people more than 27 outs. We've got to play a little tighter type of baseball."
Bad team gets worse
This means more bunting, more stealing, more innings aimed at making one run out of slender resources. Without a consistent power source, Knight has no alternative but to adopt the strategies of the dead ball era, and he has asked seasoned third baseman Terry Pendleton to help see to it that the detail work gets done correctly.
It is a last resort, and not a particularly promising one. For even if the Reds start sacrificing successfully, they lack the pitching to protect small leads.
Dave Burba, Mike Morgan, Pete Schourek and John Smiley, who have started 51 of the Reds' first 68 games, all have earned-run averages exceeding 5.00. Offensively, the Reds are averaging 3.8 runs per game.
This run-production disparity made for a dreary season long before Tuesday's medical report. Now, it is a recipe for routs. Barry Larkin had better hurry back.
INDIANS 5, REDS 1
LARKIN OUT 2-6 WEEKS
5 COLOR PHOTOS
NOTEBOOK: HEART OF REDS' ORDER ON DL
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