Thursday, September 02, 1999

Stretch run has begun




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The battle is lost, but at least the ordeal is over. Unless they should be reunited in postseason play, the Cincinnati Reds are finished with the Atlanta Braves for this millennium.

        No more Greg Maddux. No more John Smoltz. No more of those jaw-dropping Joneses — Andruw and Chipper. No more humiliation. No more heartbreak.

        No more gut-wrenching games like Wednesday night's.

        What began as a tight pitcher's duel gave way to a bewildering Braves blowout, a heartening Reds rally and, finally, an 8-7 tease. Atlanta surged to a 7-1 lead with a five-run fifth inning against Ron Villone and Scott Sullivan. But instead of staying down for the count, as they customarily have against the Braves, the Reds rallied. Just not enough to beat the Braves.

        “It's good,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said, “to see them out of town.”

Oh, those Braves
        The Braves are clearly a cut above their National League competition, but against the Reds, it is the unkindest cut. Wednesday's win was their eighth in nine tries against Cincinnati this year and their 24th in 29 games over the last three seasons. The Reds are to the Braves what Richie Phillips is to Donald Fehr, what Marge Schott is to the Queen Mother, what Wile E. Coyote is to the Road Runner.

        “They outclassed us here this week,” said Aaron Boone, the Cincinnati third baseman. “We're bewildered by it and frustrated. But we can't sulk or start worrying. We need to learn something from it.”

        Normally, ballplayers don't find much meaning in the outcome of a single game. Among the more valuable lessons of a sport conducted daily is that today's trend can be tomorrow's aberration. But the Braves have dominated the Reds so thoroughly and for so long — winning in so many different ways — that participants were compelled to look for patterns and to view the first of September as a call to arms.

        “It's time to see what we're made of,” Boone said. “It's time to put up or shut up. And that's awesome. ... It's there for us to have. It's a matter of us playing well and winning ballgames. I believe we'll be there in the end. If we take care of business this next month, maybe we'll get another chance at (the Braves).”

Consider it crunch time
        The Reds' recent rut does not disqualify them from postseason play, but it does make it more difficult. While the Reds remain only 11/2 games behind Houston in the National League Central, they have dropped four games behind the New York Mets in the race for the wild-card playoff spot. With only 30 games to play, this is a meaningful margin.

        If the Reds are to reduce that gap, or make a convincing run at the Astros, they must get more production or less liability out of left fielder Greg Vaughn. The purported slugger was 0-for-5 Wednesday with three strikeouts and a double-play grounder struck while swinging at a 3-0 pitch.

        That Vaughn continues to hit cleanup with a .230 batting average speaks to how thin the Reds really are.

        Asked about the possibility of dropping Vaughn a few spots in the batting order, McKeon responded with a long silence and then changed the subject.

        “We'll get (Mike) Cameron back,” he said, “and we'll be different.”

        Maybe so. The remaining schedule is comparatively soft, and the Reds have been resilient on the road. More important, they have no games left with Atlanta.

        “I think we're a confident group,” Boone said. “To a man, we feel we should go out and win every night. We feel we always have the ability. It's a matter of going out and doing it.”

        It's September. Time for a baseball team to reveal its true identity.

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