Saturday, September 25, 1999

Reds keep pressure on rivals




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jack McKeon has gone six weeks between speeches. If the Cincinnati Reds don't understand what's at stake by now, there's no sense in more meetings.

        “I think everyone in that room knows what we've got to do,” McKeon said Friday afternoon. “I just want them to continue the way they're playing.”

        Football is the game of fiery oratory and adrenal overload. Baseball is about unemotional execution under excruciating pressure. With their season running short and their odds running long, the Reds went about their business Friday more focused on their routine than their place in the standings.

        Pokey Reese was looking for a new cup. Dmitri Young was pulling on the same old shredded T-shirt. Someone was singing a song that would have made Howard Stern blush. McKeon sat in the manager's office with his feet on his desk, a cigar in his mouth — a picture of serenity in a September of anxiety.

        “I don't think there's any pressure on our guys,” McKeon said.

Every pitch counts
        This was a crock, of course. Just because the Reds are upstarts in the pennant race does not mean they are impervious to its pressures. They realize how much is riding on every pitch as the days dwindle to single digits. They know their fate hinges not just on their own success, but Houston's and that of the New York Mets. They are walking a tightrope against time.

        “It's almost like taking a test and you don't know the answer,” Young said. “You try not to look over at your neighbor to see what they have. But it's hard not to.”

        When the Reds went searching for answers in the sixth inning Friday night, the Astros and Mets seemed to be solving their problems. Houston's Mike Hampton was working on a shutout in Milwaukee. The Mets were a run ahead in Philadelphia. The Reds were three runs down, walking a tightrope that grows more narrow by the night.

Quick turnaround
        Then, in a twinkling, everything changed. Jeffrey Hammonds led off the Cincinnati sixth with a home run, and the Reds soon routed St. Louis starter Darren Oliver with a succession of singles. With two outs, Sean Casey tied the game with a check-swing single to left field. Then Greg Vaughn put the Reds ahead with a single to center.

        Then came word that the Phillies had rallied to beat the Mets, and some of the 36,974 at Cinergy Field stood to applaud the out-of-town scoreboard. When the fireworks went off at 10 p.m. sharp, in observance of the Reds' 5-4 victory, the wild-card gap had been cut to a single game and the Mets still had three more games to play against the all-conquering Atlanta Braves.

        In the space of an hour, the pressure on the Reds was enormously eased.

        The night had begun ominously, Barry Larkin and Reese making successive throwing errors to facilitate St. Louis' two-run first inning. But if these plays were indicative of any deeper problems, the pattern would not repeat itself.

        Up-the-middle defense has been the Reds' most reliable asset this season, with Larkin playing a spry shortstop, Reese a remarkable second base and Mike Cameron covering significant space in center field. This combination has enabled the Reds to get maximum mileage out of their low-budget pitching staff and has helped keep the pennant race at peak suspense.

        It would have been a cruel twist had errors by Larkin and Reese contributed to a critical loss at this late date. But if the Reds are feeling any pressure, they are not revealing much.

        "It's fun,” Reese said. "I haven't felt any pressure since Larkin went down in '97. When I step on the field, my focus is on playing the game. I'm not worried about anything else. Whether we make the playoffs or not, it's been a great season.”

        There are eight games to go, and it's a long way from over.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE