MLB Coverage: Cincinnati Pitches Its Way Back Into NL Central Race

It was just a week ago that it seemed safe for our MLB coverage to rule the Cincinnati Reds out of the three-team dogfight in the NL Central. The Reds might have been in great position to make the wild-card game, but they were drifting off the radar for the division title. No more. Cincinnati has had a hot run, while Pittsburgh has struggled and St. Louis not really asserted themselves. Consequently, the Reds enter Friday’s games just 2 ½ behind first-place Pittsburgh, and only a half-game back of St. Louis.

Some of this most current surge has to do with catching the right spot in the schedule. Cincinnati has been able to play San Diego, the Chicago Cubs and last night started a four-game series with Milwaukee, a game I was in attendance at. But the Reds also swept a two-game interleague set from the Oakland A’s, and they hung a three-game sweep on the Cubs.

Pitching is the key to all of this, specifically the work of Mat Latos and Tony Cingrani. If we use the period after the All-Star break as our measuring stick, the two starters have been dominant. Latos has a 1.32 ERA in five starts, while Cingrani has a 1.80 ERA in his five trips to the post. The rest of this very steady rotation—Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake—have maintained a solid consistency.

One area that’s been a concern for the Reds is bullpen depth. The ninth inning is secure, in the hands of Aroldis Chapman, but that bridge between him and the rotation was a little shaky. It can’t be a coincidence that this team’s push at the top of the division has coincided with some setup pitchers coming through.

J.J. Hoover has thrown 12.1 scoreless innings since the break, and Manny Parra has tossed 8.1 and allowed only two runs. Jonathan Broxton has gotten healthy and been effective in the short time he’s been off the disabled list.

Perhaps the most frightening thing about the Cincinnati staff is that they’re doing this in one of the toughest parks in baseball to pitch in, and doing without their ace. Johnny Cueto’s health has been a problem all year and his third stint on the disabled list isn’t going away quietly. The ace will be given a strength test to determine if he’s ready to begin a throwing program, with the hope of getting him back in September.

Cincinnati’s rotation is deep enough to get them in the playoffs without Cueto, as they hold a six-game lead on the Arizona Diamondbacks for the last wild-card spot. What’s questionable is whether they can win the division without their best pitcher. And if the Reds do come up a little bit short in the division race, you’d certainly like to give Cueto the ball for a one-game wild-card shot and have him back in rhythm.

For now, the arms on hand are sufficing quite nicely for Dusty Baker. The Reds have a weekend ahead in Milwaukee, and then have a big home series with Arizona, where they could quash any hopes the D-Backs have of knocking the Reds out of the playoffs entirely. With that accomplished, they could devote September to focusing on winning their third NL Central title in four years.