Sunday, October 03, 1999

Vindication or villification?


Legacy of 1999 season depends on today's result

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[young]
Dmitri Young flings his helmet after hitting a 3-run HR.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
        MILWAUKEE — Now or never. Do or die. Heroism or horror.

        After six months, 161 games, one ownership change and innumerable Joe Nuxhall non sequiturs, the Cincinnati Reds' season comes down to a single day and a set of stark alternatives.

        “We decide our own destiny,” manager Jack McKeon said. “If we win tomorrow, we'll play (again) either Monday or Tuesday. If we don't, we probably don't deserve to win.”

        Saturday's 10-6 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers was not as excruciating as Friday's extra- inning debacle, but the net result was equally damaging. Houston regained a one-game lead in the National League Central with a 3-0 victory over Los Angeles. The New York Mets, presumed dead only days ago, pulled even with the Reds in the wild-card race with a 7-0 thumping of the Pittsburgh Pirates Saturday night.

        A playoff berth that was nearly clinched when the Reds arrived in Wisconsin has become more elusive than Barry Sanders. A season of sweet

        surprises is suddenly as tenuous as the Al Gore campaign.

        “Guys are trying maybe a little too hard,” said Greg Vaughn, the Reds' left fielder and acknowledged leader. “That's human nature. We just have to go out and do the things we've been doing all year. If all of us can look at it that way, we'll be OK.”

        Perspective is easily preached at this point of the season, but achieving it can be arduous. A ballplayer spends his life preparing for big games in October only to be paralyzed by the pressure. This is not to suggest the Reds are choking; only that a hard game gets harder when so much hinges on the outcome.

        Saturday's game began unraveling on a play that should have been fairly simple. Reds starter Juan Guzman, pouncing on a third-inning bunt by Milwaukee pitcher Kyle Peterson, lifted his head before he lifted the ball, filling the bases with no one out. Before the Reds could retire the side, Milwaukee had scored seven runs, routed Guzman and reliever Dennys Reyes, and sent 13 batters to the plate.

        “The bunt,” McKeon said later, “is the most screwed-up play in the game.”

        “It was an easy play,” Guzman said. “I messed up.”

        Dmitri Young's three-run homer in the fourth inning narrowed the Brewers' advantage to 7-4, and reminded the Reds of their comeback ability. Young returned to the bench with his face the picture of fierce conviction. But when Young returned to right field, and the Brewers promptly scored two more runs, the day's prospects were dramatically diminished.

        The Reds' bullpen, a season- long strength, has lately looked more like a liability. In order for the cavalry to make a difference, you must first hold the fort.

        Barry Larkin would come to bat in the seventh inning with two on and none out, but grounded into a double play. Pokey Reese came up in the eighth inning as the potential tying run — with runners at second base and third and only one out — and fouled out on a 2-and-0 popup. He then demonstrated his disgust by swinging his bat angrily at the ground.

        “All I needed was a fly ball (to score a run),” Reese said later, “and I hit a fly ball to the third baseman. When you don't capitalize with men in scoring position, you wind up losing.”

        Bad things happen to good ballclubs. Even the best teams spend at least part of every season on the skids. Championship teams, however, generally arrange their speed bumps earlier on the schedule.

        “It's certainly been a crazy couple of weeks,” said Reds third baseman Aaron Boone. “But the bottom line is we've got to come in and win a ballgame tomorrow. I'll take our guys to win a ballgame any day of the week.”

        The Reds were still talking a good game Saturday afternoon. Whether they can play one today with so much at stake is another issue entirely. To be swept in the final series of the season, by a team 211/2 games off the pace, would taint all this team has accomplished.

        Today's choices are vindication or vilification. There's not much middle ground.

        “Doggone right we're going to do it, period,” Dmitri Young said. “They (the Brewers) can't break out the brooms on us.”

        Believe or not.

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

       



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