Saturday, September 11, 1999

Pennant race cures what ails Graves




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The swelling was a little smaller than a baseball, a large red knot beside Danny Graves' left knee. Forty minutes after he had fallen to the ground as if he had fielded a stray bullet, the Cincinnati Reds' resilient reliever was walking again, and he did not wince.

        “If you're in a pennant race, the only way you don't pitch is if your arm's hanging off,” Graves said. “The only way you don't pitch is if you're hurt, and I don't consider myself hurt.”

        It was good that Graves clarified that, for those who attended his most recent appearance might have left with the wrong impression. To record the final out of the Reds' 4-2 victory over the Florida Marlins, Graves had to stop a savage liner by Alex Gonzalez with his left quadriceps muscle and then field the carom off his right leg.

        It's not often that a pitcher gets carried off the field for recording a save, but Friday night it was a necessity. First Graves went down on his knees, then he rolled onto his back, then he was helped toward the trainer's room with one arm around Pete Harnisch and the other around Gabe White.

        Scary stuff. Had Gonzalez's liner landed an inch or two farther to the left, it would have struck Graves squarely on the kneecap and, presumably, made an incalculable impact on the Reds' playoff prospects.

Graves is invaluable
        This is one guy Jack McKeon cannot afford to lose.

        Graves has shared the closer's role with Scott Williamson this season and sometimes has pitched in the shadow of the remarkable rookie. But as the Reds' season enters the top of the stretch run, Graves has been the go-to guy out of the bullpen. He has become more reliable than Williamson at snuffing late-inning threats and had been the healthier of the two until about 9:50p.m. Friday.

        Graves' painful grab of Gonzalez's liner gave him his 22nd save of the season and extended a month-long run of stunning efficiency. Since Aug.10, the bleached-blond right-hander has pitched 17 innings over 14 appearances and allowed only one earned run.

        Pressure? What pressure?

        “He's always the same,” Reds third baseman Aaron Boone said. “Always. He's probably the one person that I've played with that you cannot tell if he's given up the three-run homer in the seventh game of the World Series or the opposite. It's an awesome quality.”

        Friday marked the 10th time Graves had entered a game this season with the bases loaded. Only twice has he allowed a run.

        This time, with the bases full and one out in the eighth inning, Graves was called on to confront the Marlins' Preston Wilson, who had homered in his previous at-bat the previous inning.

        Graves was looking for a groundball until he got ahead in the count. Then he went for the strikeout. He threw a 1-2 curveball that Wilson waved at without result. He then ended the inning by getting Mike Lowell to hit a routine groundball to shortstop Barry Larkin.

        This time, with the Reds clinging to the pennant race by their cuticles, Larkin celebrated the inning-ending out by throwing the ball into the red seats behind first base. That's how big these games are right now to the Reds.

Astros aren't sore, are they?
        The Astros would win again, too — do they ever lose? — but the Reds could take consolation that they had remained in Houston's rear-view mirror, just three games behind with 21 to play. They have to know that losing another game in the standings at this stage could be catastrophic, for there isn't much time for atonement.

        Neither is there much time to nurse sore muscles.

        “I'll be OK tomorrow,” Danny Graves promised. “It's swollen up because of the ice. I'll be fine. When you're in a race and you've got a chance to beat up on people, you don't want days off.”

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

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE