Tuesday, October 05, 1999

Reds fall victim to new Mr. October

Good pitching beats good hitting - especially in playoffs

The Cincinnati Enquirer

[hammonds young]
Jeffrey Hammonds and Dmitri Young were frustrated by Al Leiter, though Hammonds had one of the Reds' two hits.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        The Reds did not go gently into that good night. Quietly, yes. Gently, no.

        When Sean Casey struck out swinging in the ninth inning, he shattered his bat with one swing at the ground. When Dmitri Young lined out to end the season, he slammed his batting helmet off the turf so hard that it bounced over his head.

        Unable to make consistent contact with Al Leiter's cut fastballs Monday night, the Reds transferred their aggression to inanimate objects. There is no surer sign of October baseball — good hitters getting frustrated by good pitchers in the games that matter most.

        The Reds' startling season ended with a flurry of futility Monday night, with two hits more than two hours apart in a game with only one survivor. Leiter, a left-hander of limited renown, pitched the New York Mets into the playoffs with a 5-0 shutout of the Reds in a game of winner-take-wild-card at Cinergy Field.

        The Little Engine That Could finally ran out of steam.

        “Al Leiter really showed up tonight,” Casey said, his tear-filled eyes glistening under the television lights. "He was pretty nasty tonight. He showed that he's a big-game pitcher.”

        This is what it takes to win at this time of year — starting pitchers who can take the ball and twist the other team into knots. The mediocre arms who have facilitated so much offense this season have gone home for the winter. The pitchers who remain are the ones who can hit their spots with movement, velocity and consistency. The last five teams eligible for the National League playoffs were the five with the lowest earned-run averages. No coincidence there.

        Good pitching will usually beat good hitting. Great pitching will steal your lunch money and laugh.

        Monday night, with a whole season riding on the outcome, Al Leiter was as good as any pitcher going.

        "His ball was moving so much tonight, it was amazing,” said Reds shortstop Barry Larkin. "The entire game, he made the pitches when he had to.”

        Asked if he had ever seen Leiter pitch so well, Larkin managed a smile in a clubhouse short on mirth.

        "Yes,” he said. “In the broadcast booth during the (1997) World Series.”

        Al Leiter is not normally mentioned among the elite arms in the game — Monday's victory was his 13th of the season against 12 defeats — but at the top of his game he's the Empire State Building. He struck out 15 Cubs in seven innings Aug. 1.

        But this was better. This was brilliance. This was a six-month season settled in the space of three hours. This was a game of utmost urgeny. The winner would move on. The loser would be left behind.

        “Honestly, we thought we were going to get to him,” Casey said. “But he seemed like he humped it up a little at the end. I knew he blew a couple by me in the ninth inning.”

        The Reds were a great ride — endlessly surprising, totally thrilling - and until Monday night there was never much of a line to get on board. But before a bundled-up bandwagon of 54,621 spectators, the rollicking Reds roller coaster suddenly flatlined.

        Jeffrey Hammonds' second-inning single was the Reds' only hit until Pokey Reese doubled to open the ninth. Reese was the only Red to reach scoring position all evening.

        “We battled and we battled and we battled,” Dmitri Young said. "And we couldn't come up with anything.”

        "It's a tough way to end a great year,” said Aaron Boone, the third baseman. "Hopefully, it's something we can learn from and be a few games better next year.”

        One more win would have kept the Reds out of Al Leiter's clutches. There's a lesson in that.

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